Watch out what you wish for. From trash-strewn trekking paths in Nepal to drunken visitors on the beaches of Bali, nations across the Asia and Pacific region have found that the impact of tourism has not been uniformly positive. Will Myanmar be the next to discover that unfortunate truth as cross-border tourism from Thailand, as well as the number of international air arrivals, continues to grow?
Direct flights into Mandalay and the one time and present capital cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw are increasingly full, and the upcoming Southeast Asian Games at year's end will bring in thousands more athletes, spectators and officials.
A temple and heritage building in the heart of Yangon, the former Myanmar capital. As tourism is growing fast, Myanmar has felt the need to attract not only everyday tourists but a `nobler' breed of visitor on personal and spiritual journeys.
Thailand may be "amazing", Malaysia may well be "truly Asia" and India "incredible" or so their tourism ad campaigns and official logos proclaim but what about Myanmar? A recently developed pilot tourism campaign that was previewed during a World Economic Forum event and shown again at a recent government forum would have Myanmar's visitors "join the journey" and is intended in part, one government official said, to help change the country's "image".
Recent sectarian violence not far from one of Myanmar's top beach destinations and a small bomb explosion, still under investigation, at one of Yangon's five star hotels underscore, however, something that those of us who have worked in development and communications have long known. Pretty pictures and carefully staged commercials, whether featuring Egypt's ancient pyramids or Rio's sunny beaches, cannot and should not displace necessary actions to understand and to address persistent inequalities and economic constraints that can undercut any nation's tourism industry in the long run.
Tourism campaigns also must be research-based, and with clear goals and measurements of effectiveness that will help the government, as well as industry partners and funders, determine if money raised and used is well spent. This is particularly relevant at a time of limited resources, and with the reemergence of Myanmar as a key destination for business, government and increasingly vacation travellers. Ongoing reforms, being shaped by vested interests, will also dramatically impact Myanmar's tourism sector for better and for worse for decades to come.
Today, with international sanctions against Myanmar lifted or suspended, business travellers, development bankers and aid agencies and tourists are back with a vengeance. US President Barack Obama included Myanmar on his first overseas visit since winning re-election in November 2012, and more than a million international arrivals are now expected annually.
As more and more travellers make it to Myanmar, the government and industry working together will clearly need to take steps to address visitor concerns about overpriced and insufficient accommodations. These were issues raised at a recent tourism coordination meeting in Nay Pyi Taw, where the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism rolled out an eclectic mix of priority projects as part of a new master tourism plan for the country.
Infrastructure investments in areas from roads to water and electricity will also be critical. More broadly, concerted efforts must be taken to address what I call the threat to the tourism sector of the "little bric", namely bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism by government and corruption.
Whether business executive or tourist, every visitor also can play a role. Here are several suggestions to consider.
First, seek to begin to build a better understanding of the many challenges that still lie ahead for Myanmar even before visiting the country. Consider the perspectives of those who have gone before, including the views of civil society, environmental and other organisations not driven purely by business interests. Regardless of the reason one comes to this once pariah nation, travellers should think through how and where they will spend their money and its impact.
Second, once in country, ideally go beyond the nation's major tourist destinations, and as feasible and as appropriate, engage with people from all walks of life. Contemplate and witness first-hand the challenges and necessary changes that still lie ahead, and how one can contribute both before and after your visit ends. Consider, for example, supporting community-based tourism and speak up for the preservation and revitalisation of the nation's many beautiful, but crumbling, heritage buildings.
Third, even as volunteer vacations and well-intended donations can help individuals and small-scale projects, recognise that it will be a strong rule of law and the private sector that will drive and sustain job creation and economic growth in Myanmar including its nascent tourism sector. Business, vacation and other travellers can be part of that long-term story.
Travellers to Myanmar should take the time to look, to listen and to learn, and more than that, to join in the journey to build a more peaceful and prosperous nation.
Northwest of Myanmar, in the remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan, Dhamey Norgay, the youngest son of the legendary Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, tells me that what the entire Himalayan region needs more of these days are "noble travellers". Tenzing was the first man, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to summit Mount Everest successfully some 60 years ago.
A noble traveller, Dhamey says, is someone who embarks on a rare journey not simply a vacation for personal growth and to enrich ones inner self through interaction with people and cultures in distant lands.
Coming from distant Bhutan, Dhamey's words are particularly understandable. This last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalaya _ "happiness is a place", its tourism slogan proclaims _ has forged its own unique tourism path forward, slowly opening to the world in order to seek the economic benefits of tourism while minimising negative impacts on the nation's environment, people and culture.
One key challenge for Bhutan has been how to ensure that tourism's impact remains a positive one _ high value, and low impact. That challenge is now also clearly Myanmar's, and no tourism ad campaign can disguise that reality.
Curtis S Chin served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush (2007-2010). He is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.