Myanmar's Tourism Boom Endangers Fragile Ecosystems

The country has opened its doors to tourism and all that goes with it: hotel construction, pollution, waste—and perhaps ecosystem loss.

Villagers wait on Inle Lake for tourist boats to approach. Traditionally dressed, the men pose with fish traps for tourists and ask for small amounts of cash.

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. The government, acknowledging the potential for ecosystem loss, has pledged to spend $35 million (U.S.) to tackle the problem. But most fear that it will not be able to act soon enough.

Young women take selfies and send text messages near the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.

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. "Tourism plays a vital role in Myanmar by reducing poverty, enabling employment opportunities, balancing social and economic development, and implementing political reforms," reports the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in its national plan.

A peddler sells snacks in front of a bus headed for Mandalay, an iconic tourist destination and Myanmar's second largest city.

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.

"If it comes too fast, too big, the footprint obliterates what the original, desirable situation was," said Barbara Bauer, the head of Inle Speaks, an organization focused on environmental and economic issues connected with the lake.

"One of the most important things to understand is the fragility—both environmental and economic fragility—of the lake and the interaction and interdependence on tourists upon it," she said. "I think the 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," said Bauer.

Still, there are parts of the Inle area, like Nan Taw on nearby Samkar Lake, where tourism is practically nonexistent and few foreign faces are seen. It is here that William Bleisch, a program director and researcher for the China Exploration and Research Society, is hoping to get ahead of the country's rising wave of commercial development.

Tourists return to the main town of Nyaungshwe after a sunset boat ride on Inle Lake.

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.

Jumping ashore, Bleisch follows a boatman past grunting pigs, sun-dried fish, and playing children. He is trying to find a live specimen of the Inle herring barbel, also known as the Stedman barb, a fish he fears may have disappeared from the lake. He's been working on environmental conservation in this area since 2011.

This student at the Inle Hospitality Vocational Training School is learning how to work in the front office of a hotel. The best students get positions at the best hotels in Myanmar.

"It's like the Galápagos of Asia, these alpine lakes in Southeast Asia,'' he explains. "Each one of them has been this little laboratory of evolution." Yet in three years of research Bleisch has found only 9 of the 17 endemic and range-restricted species historically reported in the lake. "We're still hopeful for the others, but some of them may be gone already, and others seem to be much rarer than they were in the past," he said.

Local fishermen concur. "Before we used to catch a lot of fish, but now we can't catch very many," said Ma Nan Cho, a villager on the Samkar Reservoir, heading in to sell her morning's catch of finger-size fish at a local lakeside market. She did not think the fishing or the number of boats on the lake was the problem, she said. But something, she said, is changing.

Invasive Species

And one major change, says Bleisch, is introduced fish, whether brought in by accident or deliberately—like the fish farm full of Siberian sturgeon Bleisch happened upon one day. "We're coming to what biologists are starting to call the 'homogecene'—where everywhere you go you find the same [species] … It's just part of that whole process, that collapse of what's unique and special. That's what really has me concerned."

Already the endemic Inle carp (Cyprinus intha), a unique species that plays an important role in the cultural life of the main ethnic group surrounding the lake, has begun hybridizing with the common carp, an introduced species, to the point where it is difficult to find a pure C. intha specimen.

Laborers take a break in the shade of the sugar cane they are harvesting near Nyaungshwe, the largest town on Inle Lake. When the cut cane fields are burned, the smoke can get so severe the surrounding hills cannot be seen.

"To me it sort of encapsulates that opening up and connection with the outside world, which can be a good thing if people now have better hygiene, their kids are going to school, they have more markets—but it can also be very detrimental. If it is not carefully planned, it can destroy a lot. So, it's globalization in a nutshell when I see that list of species growing and growing. Every time I come back [to the lake], we've got another addition to the list [of species]. Now we're up to 43, I think," he said after having spent part of the day stuck in a jam of water hyacinth, itself an introduced, prolific, and problematic species.

A woman gathers strands of silk at the Mya Setkyar weaving workshop. Workers at the shop use hand-powered looms to weave silk and lotus-thread clothing.

Even with all of this, Bleisch remains guardedly optimistic. "We're playing catch-up right now. We're trying to solve problems that could have been prevented if there had been the mechanisms in place ten years ago," he said.

"We know that tourism is growing here, and it won't be sustainable if it continues on this trajectory. Given that, I think there is real interest and concern among the local people, among the hotel owners, among the community, among the people who live here and make their livings here, to see that this doesn't destroy the environment, that it doesn't destroy the lake. And tourism can also be very beneficial. It can open people's eyes to new possibilities that are not as destructive compared to some of the things that they've been doing."