NYAUNG OO PHEE, Myanmar, 25 February 2019: One of the first snorkeling and dive resorts in the Mergui Archipelago is juggling the challenges of delivering Instagramable experiences while providing environmental protection on a remote island in the Andaman Sea.
Off the coast of southern Myanmar and Thailand, Victoria Cliff Resort (https://www.nyaungoopheeresort.com) on Nyaung Oo Phee island, will be formally opened next month by the Myanmar Minister of Tourism, but the creation of the picture-perfect beach resort took nearly half a decade to become a reality.
Everything has been more difficult than expected, and costs have been much higher than on the mainland, says Victoria Cliff CEO Alfred Sui, who gained a lease for the island in 2013. It took two years to get approval for the tent and villa resort from the Myanmar government.
It was the presence of the striped orange, white and black anemonefish – or clownfish – that convinced Sui that Nyaung Oo Phee had the potential to be kept and protected as one of the best snorkeling locations in the archipelago. The distinctive shallow-water fish, which lures in food to its poisonous anemone host, chases away predatory fish, and cleans up the food leftovers, is found at several of the resort’s snorkeling sites. With four sites accessible by boat, and one just off the island resort, generally good visibility means visitors can explore a new undersea world.
A recent survey by Fauna & Flora estimates around 300 species of coral are found throughout the archipelago, which is spread 400km from north to south, and probably over 600 reef fish species live in the fringing reefs and atolls. In the waters around Nyaung Oo Phee, tube, harp, staghorn, tiger claw, Gorgonian Seafan and table coral are seen, along with sea cucumbers, sea stars, urchins, wrasse, surgeonfish, triggerfish, angelfish, boxfish, tigerfish, pipefish, sweetlips, barracuda, tiger-striped anemones, moray eels, stingrays and sea turtles.
There are larger species, such as groupers, snappers, emperors, butterfly fish, and parrotfish found throughout the archipelago and around Nyaung Oo Phee, though elsewhere the low numbers of predatory and niche species, as well as of sharks and manta rays, suggest unreported and unregulated overfishing in the last few decades.
The forest-covered island, formerly known as McKenzie island from colonial Burma times, lies in the outer zone of the 800 islands which make up the Mergui Archipelago, an area previously out-of-bounds to all during the last half-century.
It was in the late 1990s that a few foreign liveaboard dive boats were permitted into the politically-sensitive region. The earmarking of a select few islands for development only began this decade, and the first island resort, Myanmar Andaman Resort, no longer takes visitors, having switched to hosting day-trippers aboard large 1,500-3,500 passenger cruise boats from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
The first genuine eco-resort, Boulder Island Eco-Resort (https://boulderasia.com), is now in its third season, while in the last few months new high-end resorts Wa Ale Resort (http://www.waaleresort.com) and Awei Pila (https://aweipila.com) have received their first guests.
With its coral sands and clear waters, the previously uninhabited, dense jungle-covered Nyaung Oo Phee might seem like a paradise island, but finding a balance between tourist demands, government bureaucracy red-tape, the fishing industry and environmental preservation has not been easy. Sui says his first choice island was given to another party with better connections to the decision-makers, a common practice during Myanmar’s decades of military rule where ‘crony capitalism’ was practiced without any transparency.
Following Myanmar’s democratic elections in 2015, lack of certainty about the roles and responsibilities of regional and central government have hindered the process.
Despite the difficulties, Sui persevered, driven by his desire to create a sustainable tourism enterprise in a region that had suffered from exploitative extractive industries, black market smuggling and the out-flow of migrant workers seeking a better life in nearby Thailand. While initially government officials in the capital Nay Pyi Daw didn’t know who he was and viewed him with suspicion, Sui says site inspections of his enterprise has changed the minds of both politicians and civil servants.
The local fishing industry, one of the main employers in the region, but guilty of illegal poaching and unregulated over-fishing, also initially regarded the establishment of eco-resorts and water activities for tourists as a threat. “It is about building relationships and also education and knowledge.”
Sui says when he first came to the archipelago, there was evidence of dynamite being used in blast fishing, with huge holes in the coral reef. Better patrolling by the Myanmar navy mean dynamite isn’t used to kill and catch marine life anymore, but he says the resort is trying to educate local fishermen about not taking under-sized fish so as to maintain fish stocks, and not to damage the coral. The resort has built boat mooring so boats don’t have to drag their anchors on the coral, and fishermen aren’t allowed to fish at the resort’s main snorkeling sites. “Because if the oceans are fished out, if the trees are cut, there is no future. It will be all gone.”
He believes the presence of the resort has helped the protection of fish stocks around the island, and the resort has established new artificial reefs to restore areas damaged by blasting. Before the resort took its first guests, extensive clean-up removed marine debris, plastics washed up from all over South East Asia, and discarded ghost fishing nets.
While currently Asian tourists, particularly those from Thailand enjoying free entry to Myanmar, make up 80% of the day-trippers or overnighters to Nyaung Oo Phee during the October to May season, Sui hopes more Westerners will discover the island. Europeans are more environmentally conscious, he says, such as being careful not to damage or souvenir the coral, and preferring refillable water bottles to single-use plastic bottles.
The monthly bill for satellite internet for the isolated island to provide wifi for staff and guests is US$2,600. “We’ve had to do everything ourselves, including getting drinkable water from a natural spring, and generating our own electricity using a solar plant. In being the first in the archipelago, and taking the lead, it hasn’t been easy, but we have made it easier for others to follow.”
Nearly 300 people are employed on the island and at Victoria Cliff Hotel (https://www.victoriacliff.com) in Kawthaung, and Sui hopes that on the mainland, more community-based tourism, attractions and activities will give visitors more reasons to stay on the Myanmar side of the border, rather than just come for a day-trip from the Thai port of Ranong, across the river estuary. He says any developed needs to be controlled and managed, to keep it natural.