Can Bagan cope with World Heritage fame?

SINGAPORE, 10 July 2019: Within a day of the UNESCO announcement recognising Bagan as a World Heritage Site, the clamour to cash in began in earnest.

Bangkok Airways was first off the chock according to national newspaper The Myanmar Times. The Thai airline quickly pressed its case to launch a new direct flight from Bangkok to Bagan just hours after the historic announcement.

Others will follow and in its defence, Bangkok Airways has made similar requests spanning the many years Myanmar has waited for Bagan to win a place on the World Heritage list of cultural monuments

This gold rush drift should prompt Myanmar’s tourism leaders to dust off the national master plan to refresh themselves on the direction Bagan should now take.

They will note that the 2013 to 2020 master plan funded by the Asian Development Bank and Norway mentions the need to “ explore more international flights to Bagan.”

That will please those who are keen to use Bagan’s World Heritage status as a coat hanger to fuel tourism growth and opening the city’s small airport to international flights would be a good start.

But the move will face opposition from Myanmar’s own airlines. They will argue with some authority that they are already under the cosh and staggering to stay financially viable against overwhelming competition from neighbouring airlines.  Maintaining Bagan strictly for domestic flights will keep them in the game.

Conservationists are equally concerned that Bagan’s new status could prompt a tourism surge and with it more commercial development.

Bagan’s tourism planners will need to walk a tightrope.  Do they want to emulate the commercial success of Siem Reap rolling out a red carpet and offering airlines incentives to fly direct?

Will Bagan raise entrance fees to the level that Angkor Wat Historical Park enjoys, which is, without doubt, the highest single earner of tourism dollars in Cambodia?

Today, travellers shell out MYR25,000 for the Bagan entrance fee paid when they arrive at the city’s boundaries, the airport or riverboat pier. According to the Myanmar Times, the annual collection tops USD4 million a year, but that is a fraction of the honey pot Angkor Wat gifts to Cambodia’s national coffers.

While USD4 million is not to be sneezed at, Bagan’s new status will raise antennas. Could the promised gravy train be tweaked to earn more for the economy?

Then are conservationists who look at the huge task of restoring up to 3,800 ancient pagodas and like Oliver Twist, they stretch out a hand and ask for more.

They probably have a strong case considering that just 2% of the entrance fee goes to conservation and restoration of the World Heritage site and 8% goes to the Myanmar Tourism Federation apparently to promote tourism leaving a massive 90% of the fee promptly dispatched to the national coffers.

Local leaders in Bagan are asking that the government reassign at least 10% of its earnings from the fees is flipped back to the town for heritage park maintenance.

Myanmar’s tourism and aviation leaders have some big decisions to make over the months ahead. It will take a clever balancing act to secure an outcome that in the long run will secure the treasures of Bagan for generations to come. 

Or as the preface of the country’s national tourism master plan clearly states: “We intend to use tourism to make Myanmar a better place to live in… and welcome those who appreciate and enjoy our heritage, our way of life and who travel with respect.”