NGO Involvement in Ecotourism: Case Study from Myanmar

NGO Involvement in Ecotourism: Case Study from Myanmar

Myanmar has been going through a transformation from military to civilian rule since 2011, coupled with a series of social and economic reforms. This brought a huge growth in the tourism sector, from less than 1 million international tourists in 2011, to more than 3 millions in 2014. Many local and international NGOs are taking part in this development.

This article appeared on APN: Asia Pacific News. Volume 7, Issue 2, Autumn 2015


In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the number of international tourists worldwide, from 528 million in 1995, to 1.085 billion in 2013, and that number is expected to rise to 1.6 billion in 2020. Tourism is important for many developing countries, as it is a source of foreign investment, foreign currency, entrepreneurial initiatives, service-based job creation, and local social enhancement (UNWTO, 2015).

In September 2015, the UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In January 2016, the Sustainable Development Goals are set to come into effect, replacing the Millennium Development Goals from 2000. The importance of sustainable tourism is stated using three indicators, under three different goals. An important part of sustainable tourism is ecotourism, globally one of the fastest-growing tourism markets. It is seen by many as a way to bring economic development hand-in-hand with nature conservation. Therefore, many non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations (referred to in this piece as NGOs) concerning international development seek to engage in ecotourism initiatives.

Tourism is included as targets under three of the SDGs – SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all; SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production and SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Ecotourism represents a set of principles that have so far been successfully implemented in various global communities, and are supported by extensive industry and academic research. When properly executed, ecotourism exemplifies the benefits of socially and environmentally sound tourism development. “Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement, participate in, and market ecotourism activities should adopt the following ecotourism principles: (1) Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts; (2) Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect; (3) Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; (4) Provide direct financial benefits for conservation; (5) Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry; (6) Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates; (7) Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities; (8) Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment” (TIES, 2015).

In Myanmar, the term ecotourism refers to tourism-related activities in and around its protected areas, and focuses on management tools, systems, and processes that guarantee three elements: (1) biodiversity and ecosystem conservation; (2) education and learning to enable hosts and visitors to understand and engage with management approaches to protect and conserve the natural and cultural assets of these areas; and, (3) economic and social benefits to communities in and around protected areas that (a) reduce their demand for the natural assets of these areas, and (b) engage them in collaborative approaches to protected area management (MoHT, 2015).


NGOs and ecotourism

NGOs have emerged in the last decade as one of the principal advocates and implementers of ecotourism practices. Tourism and conservation NGOs can be organizations that have diverse memberships composed of community adherents, the tourism industry, conservationists, social activists, and so on; or they may be specialized groups of stakeholders, for example environmentalists or consumer advocates. NGOs can also be non-membership associations, such as the Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA). Many NGOs are moving forward with the general concept of sustainability, but also developing projects of their own, experimenting with different approaches to achieving their sustainability and conservation goals.

Conservation is the primary mandate of several  international environmental NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), as well as a multitude of national and local NGOs. Many of these organizations have embraced ecotourism as a form of development that is complementary to the goals of their conservation efforts. This is due in part to ecotourism’s relatively modest negative impact on natural and, to a lesser extent, cultural environments, compared with many other economic activities. It is also partly due to ecotourism’s ability to provide opportunities for economic benefits to communities residing in the landscapes which these NGOs seek to conserve. International NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International demonstrate their belief in ecotourism as a development and conservation tool through the operation of ecotourism departments within their institutional frameworks (Weaver, 2001; Garrod & Wilson, 2013).

NGOs have mainly focused on four essential components of ecotourism: (1) ecotourism-related financing mechanisms for conservation; (2) the establishment of tourism industry and resource management standards and especially voluntary guidelines; (3) research on the challenges facing the management of natural resources and ecotourism’s ability to address these issues; and (4) the education of stakeholders regarding solutions for coastal resource usage problems, including the implementation of genuine ecotourism.

NGOs can play a leading role in making visitor fees a successful option for funding national parks. The external NGOs help by building a coalition of support for fee establishment or a fee increase, while local NGOs serve as a voice for particular interest groups, for example managers of a particular coastal destination or a coastal user group. These NGOs can work in tandem with government agencies, and sometimes the tourism industry, to establish an equitable and feasible fee system for parks.

Regulations, codes of conducts for tourists, and codes of practice for the industry are all part of larger efforts to set standards for conducting marine tourism and ecotourism in a given setting. The term “standard” is being used here as a general, catch-all phrase to encompass the efforts of the tourism industry, as well as natural area managers, to achieve a balance between the use of natural resources and their preservation.

NGOs can also help with researching the issues related to the feasibility of ecotourism practices along with nature conservation and sustainable development. The research is only useful if it is distributed to policy-makers, scientists, managers, and the general public.

As part of this dissemination process, NGOs’ potential role of educator is an essential part of achieving conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Many NGOs are involved in a wide range of educational activities in general, and in ecotourism education-related issues in particular (Garrod & Wilson, 2013).

To sum up, NGOs serve unique coordination functions across institutional sectors and can help facilitate negotiations between local communities and tourism developers. NGOs help define and direct the growth of ecotourism. They are vital sources of financial and technical assistance, for conservation and development. As part of their development agenda, they also help with community empowerment, knowledge sharing, guidance skills, and so on.


Ecotourism in Myanmar

Myanmar has been going through a transformation from military to civilian rule since 2011, coupled with a series of social and economic reforms. This is a triple transition: Transitioning from an authoritarian military system to democratic governance; from a centrally directed economy to a market-oriented economy; and from 60 years of conflict to peace in its border areas. These transitions have the potential to create new opportunities and shared prosperity for the people of Myanmar, and for the country to resume its place as one of the most dynamic economies in Asia.

As the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Myanmar has one of the lowest population densities in the region, with fertile lands, significant untapped agricultural potential, and a rich endowment of natural resources. Its geographic location at the intersection of China and India, two of the world’s most dynamic economies, means it is well-positioned to resume its role as a regional trading hub and a key supplier of minerals, natural gas, and agricultural produce.

In 2011, the government embarked on an ambitious economic, political, and governance reform program. It has begun a series of reforms to remove economic distortions, such as floating the currency; implementing new fiscal regulations to rationalize personal income tax; and reduce consumption tax, liberalizing the telecommunications sector;  implementing reforms aimed at developing the private sector and stimulating direct foreign investments; a review of the financial sector; promotion of access to finance; and creating an environment conducive to job creation.

The results of the reforms can already be seen: Myanmar’s economy is estimated to have grown by 8.3 percent from 2013 to 2014, driven mainly by construction, manufacturing, and services. Recovery in agriculture is estimated to also have contributed to the growth. The outlook for Myanmar remains positive, although this remains dependent on sustained reforms in several policy areas. In 2014, the country’s GDP was estimated at US$56.8 billion. Based on the preliminary population figure of 51.4 million from the national census conducted in April 2014, the country’s per capita GDP is around US$1,105, one of the lowest in East Asia and the Pacific. Most social indicators, such as child malnutrition, are very low. Limited access to infrastructure is a major impediment to providing basic health and education services, as well as for economic development. Almost half the nation’s roads are not passable during the monsoon season. Access to drinking water is also limited in many areas (The World Bank, 2014).

In May 2015, the “Myanmar Ecotourism Policy and Management Strategy” was officially launched at the International Conference on Ecotourism in Protected Areas that took place in Nay Pyi Taw. In the opening speech of the conference, Burmese Vice President U Nyan Tun said that Myanmar recognizes the potential for growth in the tourism sector and is developing its tourism policies accordingly. The vice president explained that ecotourism development is part of the government’s goal to develop a green economy.

With its opening up, Myanmar’s tourism industry is growing at an impressive pace. Tourist arrivals have increased dramatically in the last three years, reaching 3.081 million visitors in 2014, a 51 percent increase from the previous year, with an estimated visitor number of up to 7 million in 2020 (ADB, 2014).

Tourism Growth in Myanmar (MoHT, 2014)
Tourism Growth in Myanmar (MoHT, 2014)

Tourism plays a big role in Myanmar’s economic transformation. The nation has already taken significant steps to responsibly develop this potential, and declared tourism as one of the seven sectors prioritized in its economic policy. The total contribution of the travel and tourism industries (direct, indirect and induced) in 2014 was estimated at about US$3.216 billion (MoHT, 2014).

The “Myanmar Ecotourism Policy and Management Strategy” was developed with technical collaboration from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and is supported by the European Union and the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) GMS-Environment Operation Centre. It comes after Myanmar started following the “Responsible Tourism Policy,” and adopted the “Myanmar Tourism Master Plan 2013-2020,” which emphasizes community involvement and the sustainable development of ecotourism. The “Master Plan” outlines 38 development projects valued at nearly US$500 million that are aimed at helping develop the sector in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. However, there are still gaps and weaknesses in the sector and its supporting infrastructure (MoHT, 2013; MoHT, 2015), which we will touch upon later in this article.

The policy includes expanding the country’s network of protected areas and opening its ecosystems to the growing numbers of domestic and international travelers. In addition, it aims to establish a diverse range of quality ecotourism products and services by 2020. Laws have been revised to allow for ecotourism business activity in protected areas.

The policy is also aligned with the “National Forest Master Plan (2001-2030),” the “National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan,” and the “2013 Biodiversity Conservation Investment Vision.” It has six strategic programs: (1) Strengthening Institutional Arrangements; (2) Developing Ecotourism Management Plans; (3) Engaging Local Communities; (4) Investing in Infrastructure and Responsible Business Models; (5) Strengthening Research and Monitoring Framework; (6) Strengthening Marketing and Interpretation. A variety of experienced NGOs have partnered with government to support the preparation and implementation of the policy (MoHT, 2015).


NGOs in the ecotourism scene

A number of local NGOs have been supporting the preparation of the Ecotourism Policy and Management Strategy, including the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-Conservation Network (MERN), and Friends of Wildlife. Several international NGOs with experience in the ecotourism and protected areas interface are also supporting the process and working in partnership with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry to strengthen ecotourism models and approaches (MoHT, 2015).

The Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry’s Forest Department and NGO Istituto Oikos have prepared a management plan for Lampi Marine National Park, which aims to to preserve the terrestrial and marine environment, and support sustainable human development. The management plan is supposed to assist the Forest Department in bringing together conservation and development activities, including ecotourism. In this case, we can see that Istituto Oikos fulfills the following essential components: It helps to create a mechanism for conservation and standards for the management plan by conducting thorough research (MoHT, 2015).

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been working in Myanmar for many years. The goal of the WCS’ Myanmar program is to protect wildlife and wildlands in collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry and other relevant ministries and organizations through adaptive conservation strategies based on rigorous scientific research. At the moment, the WCS is working with the Myanmar Department of Fisheries in the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area to protect the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. The main goal is to reduce current threats to dolphins, while at the same time assisting cooperative fishing communities in developing an ecotourism model, which may act as an incentive for dolphin conservation. In this case as well, the WCS helps facilitate and educate different stakeholders, while conducting research on the natural resources management (MoHT, 2015; WCS, 2015).

Fauna and Flora International (FFI) is supporting Inn Chit Thu, a community group at Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. Its support has brought increased visitor numbers, higher local incomes and environmental awareness, as well as promoted a range of new skills. FFI has also helped establish new accommodation at Kadon Kalay Island, allowing visitors to observe migratory birds, and Irrawaddy dolphins. Here, the NGO puts much emphasis on the awareness and educational aspects, as well as technical training and skill development.

According to its website, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a “regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan – and is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. ICIMOD aims to assist [people living in mountainous areas] to understand these changes, adapt to them, and make the most of new opportunities, while addressing upstream-downstream issues.”

ICIMOD supports regional transboundary programs to develop an economically and environmentally sound mountain ecosystem to improve the living standards of mountain populations and sustain vital ecosystem services for the billions of people living downstream (ICIMOD, 2015).

Myanmar is a founding member of ICIMOD. The Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry is the nodal ministry and the Department of Forest represents Myanmar in ICIMOD’s Board of Governors. ICIMOD and the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development have recently supported the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism with the development of a “Destination Management Plan for the Inlay Lakes Region”, which includes a series of activities to be carried forward by the Inlay Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. ICIMOD is continuing to support the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism’s Taunggyi office with the implementation and monitoring of the Destination Management Plan. ICIMOD is supporting conservation in protected areas through the staging of development interventions in Kachin State, which are set to include ecotourism (MoHT, 2015).

In the case of ICIMOD, much emphasis is being put on the sharing of research and knowledge. However, there are also tangible resources: ICIMOD initiated and organized the International Conference on Ecotourism in Protected Areas that took place in May 2015.

Of course, there are many other NGOs working in Myanmar, such as Tourism Transparency or the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, as well as locally initiated NGOs such as the Union of Myanmar travel Association, PO Region Community Based Tourism and Inle Speaks – Community Skill Development Center.

All in all, there is a variety of NGOs in Myanmar actively seeking to influence, define, and direct the nation’s ecotourism industry. They do so in an attempt to merge development with nature conservation. All the NGOs mentioned incorporate the essential components of ecotourism, including mechanisms for financing conservation, resource management standards, research, and the education of stakeholders.



Conservation and development groups can play a decisive role in defining and directing the growth of ecotourism. They can also serve as vital sources of financial and technical assistance for ecotourism projects on the ground. Moreover, they can facilitate negotiations between local communities and tourism developers, ensuring that the adequate links and mutual benefits are obtained. In addition, these groups often have members or constituencies that seek information and guidance on ecotourism issues. Their support for particular ecotourism projects can contribute significantly to their success.

The essential mandate of an ecotourism organization is to minimize the negative impacts of ecotourism and maximize the positive impacts. The number of organizations striving to accomplish this in Myanmar is growing rapidly, along with the popularity of ecotourism itself, against the backdrop of the transition the country is experiencing.

One of the problems with the involvement of development NGOs in ecotourism is that some forms of ecotourism require that development be based around non-consumption and rules out transformative development. Ecotourism’s popularity as a development option devalues human advancement by linking it to external, Western concepts of conservation priorities. Sometimes, conservation is emphasized more than development. Moreover, in some cases when the Western-orientated NGO approach to ecotourism is based on a “strong” view of sustainability, the voice of the receiving communities is missing (Butcher, 2007).

NGOs will continue to be engaged in ecotourism activities, in Myanmar and elsewhere. By comparing different kinds of NGOs (for example international – local), the NGOs themselves can more easily adapt to the current trends and achieve their goals in the best way. But most importantly, international and local NGOs should work together with and for the local communities.



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