NGA KHIN NYO GYEE, Myanmar – Hundreds of white, coral sand beaches with crystal clear waters, and lush vegetation, spread over some 800 islands in the Andaman Sea, remained undisturbed on Friday, the only signs of life being lines of wandering hermit crabs.
Less than a dozen of these idyllic islands in the Mergui archipelago in southern Myanmar are populated and that too sparsely.
It is only now that the islands with all their tropical splendor are emerging as the vanguard of Myanmar’s fledgling tourism industry after the country remained closed to the outside world for more than half a century.
“The hermeticism (of the country’s former military regime) kept this region away from the outside world. Most of these islands have never been explored so there are many possibilities of finding unique species,” Georgie Aung, a member of Project Manaia, a marine research organization, told EFE.
Manaia’s marine biologists are mapping the region for a better understanding of the colorful coral reefs and help in the preservation of the archipelago, known as Asia’s last tourism frontier.
Myanmar’s transition to democracy has opened the doors for the development of the tourism industry in the country that saw a million visitors in 2017, a figure that may repeat this year.
But the lack of infrastructure and heavy military presence along the borders has kept the region out of the tourist circuit despite being virtually a stone’s throw away from Thailand’s coast.
“It is necessary to inform in advance about the routes of the itinerary and hand over the identifying data of the travelers (to the border authorities) for their approval,” said Min Oo, a guide and former member of the army.
Passage and navigation is restricted in at least 30 islands due to the presence of army bases.
“Mergui shares its southern border with Thailand, which makes it a hotspot for smuggling or human-trafficking,” Min Oo said.
Half a dozen exclusive hotels on these islands offer accommodation to few adventurous travelers.
“The Myanmar authorities must learn from the Thai experience and develop a sustainable tourism industry to preserve the archipelago,” said Bjorn Burchard, a Norwegian who owns a hotel on the island.
Burchard, who arrived in the country a quarter of a century ago, managed to lease part of the island three years ago for 50 years to set up his ecological hotel complex.
“We use the natural resources of the island for bungalows, solar energy for operation and biodegradable products to leave minimum ecological footprint possible on the island,” the 61-year-old hotelier said.