Inappropriate development might bring an end to the peace and quiet of one of Myanmar’s most attractive beach resorts.
Popular beach destinations in Thailand, such as Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui and Hua Hin, feature high rise hotels, Western fast-food chains, banana boats and jetskis. There’s a huge range of fun and entertainment options, not all of them wholesome or authentic. And the prices? Due to the easy accessibility of regional transport hub Bangkok and the mass character of tourism, a beach holiday in Thailand is easy on the wallet.
Ngapali, a jewel of a beach on the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine State, has something very different to offer: an unspoilt white sand beach several kilometres long, crystal clear water, quiet, and authenticity. There are no jetskis or banana boats, because they are banned. Its 17 hotels, with a total of only 750 rooms, are embedded in villages or hidden among the palm trees. Just a short stroll from the luxury resorts, tourists can watch fishermen bringing in their daily catch. Ngapali is certainly not cheap, but the experience is unsurpassed, as the large percentage of returning guests proves.
Lately, though, the situation has begun to change.
Speculations on the new tourism master plan
In June 2013, the Ministry for Hotels and Tourism presented to the government a draft of its Tourism Masterplan 2013-2020, which is still to be finalised. Soon after, President U Thein Sein visited Thandwe and told hotel managers in private conversations that he wanted Ngapali to become “like Bali”. On his instructions the ministry chose four areas for hotel zone expansion and allocated five billion kyats for the upgrade.
Ambitions run high and so do land prices, which have increased tenfold in recent years. The price of an acre of land along the beach has risen to between K2.5 billion (about US$2.6 million) and K3 billion. All the beachfront land has been sold, forcing the residents of fishing villages to move inland.
“The problem is that speculators are buying land for a quick profit,” said Ma Ohnmar Khin, co-owner of the luxury Sandoway resort. “They are waiting for prices to rise. Most of them lack the funds to develop the properties themselves.”
Ma Ohnmar Khin started buying small plots of land in 1997 until she owned an area with 500 metres of beachfront, on which the Sandoway was built.
Not all of the land being leased to hoteliers has been acquired in such a transparent manner. The Irrawaddy has reported that the military seized 36 acres of land from locals in 2000, with the understanding that it would be returned if the military was no longer using it. This promise was broken in early 2014 when the land was leased to Max Myanmar, Eden Group, Min Zar Ni, Amazing Hotels and Paw Kyun, said one of the former landholders.
Another development is the recent upgrade of the road that runs from Thandwe – where most travellers arrive by plane from Yangon for the short transfer to Ngapali – southwards along the beach. Also, Ngapali has been elevated to township level, which some fear is a prelude to ‘Ngapali City’, where concentrated mass tourism and Western influence will bring an end to peace and quiet.
“Why isn’t the development in Ngapali spread out? There are long stretches of pristine beach waiting to be developed to the north of Thandwe Airport and to the south of Jade Taw village. The infrastructure is there to support it,” said Ma Ohnmar Khin.
Another local hotelier, who requested anonymity, said he has seen the plans for a highrise hotel development by KMA Hotels at a small bay near Linn Thar village. He is worried that mass tourism will alter the character of Ngapali, although he agrees that tourism can also play a role in alleviating poverty in the region.
Mizzima Business Weekly contacted KMA Hotels, which is part of the KMA Group owned by business mogul U Khin Maung Aye and a sister company of CB Bank, but it declined to comment on its plans at Ngapali.
Positive aspects of tourism
Sandoway resort employs 180 people. Almost all of them are local, said Ma Ohnmar Khin. “Only two of our staff are imported. Also, we took great care to not cut any of the 600 palm trees in our resort. We built around the trees, and in some cases incorporated them in our villas. The resorts in Ngapali take care of the cleaning of the beach and the environment themselves.”
The Yoma Cherry Lodge took another approach. The owners built a school and a library. Linn Thar village children are taught at the school, with some of them even going abroad on scholarships.
Near Linn Thar village, in the same bay that houses the Yoma Cherry Lodge and the Crescent Cove resort, work has begun on the KMA Hotels highrise, despite regulations that forbid any building more than two storeys high.
Does KMA Hotels know something that the public doesn’t? What will be allowed – or not – in the yet unpublished final Tourism Masterplan? A senior Ministry of Hotels and Tourism official, who asked that his name not be used, was unable to tell Mizzima Business Weekly when the masterplan would be made public. He did say that height restrictions imposed on buildings at Ngapali would not be applied as strictly in the future. “Whenever an application for a new project arrives on our desk, we will decide on a case by case basis,” he said.
This is exactly what Sandoway-owner Ma Ohnmar Khin fears.
“If the tourism masterplan allows highrise hotels and inland development, this will lead to rising numbers of tourists and crowded beaches,” she said.
“Ngapali will lose its unique character, which is really the only thing setting us apart from other beach destinations in Southeast Asia. It is very expensive to fly from Europe to Bangkok, to Yangon and Thandwe. If we offer the same product, why should people come to Ngapali instead of cheaper Phuket or Koh Samui?”