MYEIK, Myanmar, 26 February: The ‘last island paradise’ of the Mergui Archipelago, straddling Myanmar and Thailand, has been in the spotlight with a high-level inspection and a day visit by a large super-cruise ship last week.
The group of over 800 islands, for decades dubbed ‘the forbidden islands’ following its closure to all by the Burmese military junta since the 1960s, has opened to tourism with the establishment of new resorts on some of the uninhabited islands in recent years.
Myanmar’s leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the new Wa Ale Resort in the Andaman Sea as part of a high-level three-day tour including the main towns of Myeik, Dawei and Kawthaung.
The state counsellor was impressed by the conservation-led private resort, which protected fragile marine and land habitats before creating the minimal-impact resort. Accompanied by four senior ministers, including the minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (www.monrec.gov.mm/) U Ohn Win, and the Tanintharyi region Chief Minister Daw Lae Lae Maw, Myanmar’s elected leader inspected the tented villa and treehouse resort, which has a protected sea turtle sanctuary in the dunes of its main beach.
The VIP visitors heard from the Forestry Department’s (www.forestdepartment.gov.mm) Nyi Nyi Kyaw about plans for nature-based tourism in the 50,528 acre national marine park, and the area’s unique biodiversity of evergreen forests, mangroves, sandbanks, coral reefs and underwater grasses.
Wa Ale Resort is the only resort development within the Lampi Marine National Park (www.lampipark.org), Myanmar’s first marine protected area, and a designated ASEAN Heritage Park.
The whole Mergui Archipelago, which extends over 500 km into neighbouring Thailand, is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.
The resort, which received its first guests late last year, gives 20% of its profits and 2% of its room revenues to the Lampi Foundation (https://waaleresort.com/lampi-foundation) to fund conservation and community efforts, which saw the establishment of a turtle hatchery before the resort was built, with the on-site security provided estimated to have saved over 4,000 green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtle eggs from predation and poaching.
Kingsley says the collaborative conservation-led tourism approach is a model for private-public partnership, and it wouldn’t have been successful without the full support of the Forestry Department.
“Its director general Nyi Nyi Kyaw and wildlife director Win Naing Thaw have helped our conservation efforts immensely. The Myanmar Navy’s Tanintaryi regional command Commodore Zwe Win Myint is also actively supporting all our conservation efforts.”
Kingsley says Aung San Suu Kyi was concerned about the environment, and the need for conservation, not just of the coral reefs of the archipelago but also marine life.
“She was especially interested in the educational role we play at Wa Ale in educating guests and staff about the sea life diversity and the need for environmental protection, and how we are working with local fishing communities through the Lampi Foundation.”
During the island inspection, the delegation also visited Ma Gyun Galet Salon fishing village, the largest settlement of the Moken semi-nomadic seafaring ethnic group. The hunter/gathering Moken are skilled at swimming and diving, and are known to be able to dive for a considerable time without any breathing apparatus, as well as being able to see easily underwater.
At a meeting with the Moken community, Aung San Suu Kyi said the government wants the Moken to develop while maintaining their culture and practices, and outlined the need for health and education. Community members spoke about wanting to benefit from tourism, how they can maintain their traditional fishing practices, and the need for schools, clinics, and mobile phone coverage on Lampi island.
While some of the new resorts in the Mergui Archipelago, such as Wa Ale Resort, Boulder Bay Eco-Resort, Awei Pila, and Nyaung Oo Phee, have an emphasis on environmental protection and conservation, the first resort in the outer islands, Myanmar Andaman Resort owned by Myanmar company Tint Tint Travels, has pivoted to host day-trippers on Macleod island from Singapore and Malaysia aboard the 740-cabin Star Cruises SuperStar Libra and the 3,500-passenger Genting Dream cruise boat.
Meanwhile, in an effort to co-operatively develop new tourism activities on the mainland as well as the islands, and market the region, a Destination Marketing Organisation (DMO) will be established next month, as part of as part of a longterm aid project by the Italian-government funded NGO the Oikos Institute (https://www.istituto-oikos.org), which has been working with conservation staff and local fishing communities on sustainability on Lampi island.