Myanmar's Tourism Boom Endangers Fragile Ecosystems in Lake Inle
Boasting epic and varied landscapes, quiet beaches, small villages home to indigenous tribes, a culinary experience that's unlike any other, and a chance to get truly off the grid, the former Burma is one of the area's last undiscovered gems. From hiking the hills outside of Heho, to biking in and around Bagan, you'll immediately understand why so many people want to keep this incredibly beautiful and emotionally captivating country a secret.
The country has opened its doors to tourism and all that goes with it: hotel construction, pollution, waste—and perhaps ecosystem loss.
The morning sun shoots rays over the tops of the steep hills surrounding Inle Lake that pierce the mist rising from the waters. Egrets and coots glint white in the sky overhead and glide off into the deep green marsh. Silhouetted against the newly risen sun are fishermen in their wide-brimmed, conical hats. They paddle by twisting a leg around their oar and balancing on the end of elegant, hand-carved pirogues, creating a picture postcard of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Across the dazzling water world, the clink of hand-powered looms weaving lotus-stem shawls drifts from "floating villages," where whole communities exist on stilts above the water and cafes serve tourists tomato salads harvested right off the floating gardens of the lake.
Drawn by this beauty, Inle Lake is bursting with visitors, but activists worry that this unique aquatic environment is too fragile to survive the onslaught of pollution and waste that the tourism industry brings.
Numbers of Foreign Visitors Soar
As Myanmar has opened up to the outside world over the past four years, the country has encouraged tourism as an important source of hard currency. In 2012, around 1.06 million foreign tourists visited the country—almost a 30 percent increase from the year before. Inle sees 77,000 domestic tourists and another 91,000 from overseas.
Hotels have been springing up in Nyaungshwe, a quaint farming town to the north of the lake—with more than 50 built in the past two years and many more planned in a 617-acre government clear-cut on the shore of the lake. People here are by nature and tradition caretakers of their resources, but they are not yet well enough informed to know how to do this, faced with the onslaught of both tourism and chemistry.
Galápagos of Asia
The V-shaped hull of the handmade boat drifts through the freshwaters of Samkar Lake and noses into the landing at Nan Taw. Brilliantly reflected in the clear waters of the reservoir, dozens of homes made of woven bamboo mats cascade down to the water's edge. It is like the Galápagos of Asia, these alpine lakes in Southeast Asia. Each one of them has been this little laboratory of evolution.
Given that, there is real interest and concern among the local people, among the hotel owners, to see that tourism can open people's eyes to new possibilities that are not as destructive compared to some of the things that they've been doing.