Burma has a long coastline towards the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This area is home to some of the region’s most beautiful beaches. Ngapali beach in the Rakhine state is one of these beaches and it is also one of the very few high-end tourist destinations in Burma. However, it is located in a region with a violent conflict between muslims and buddhists which make its future as a tourist destination uncertain.
The Burmese government is investing heavily in the tourism sector. At the moment there are about 25 hotels along Ngapali beach and more are to come. The sector is labor intensive, even for workers without education. Cleaners, waiters and cooks need training, but not higher education. Traditionally, people in this area worked as farmers and fishermen, but many have now left these occupations and are instead working in hotels or other tourism venues.
Rakhine state, the second poorest state in Burma, is also home to the muslim Rohingya population. The government does not recognize the Rohingyas as an ethnic group and they are refused citizenship in Burma. They live under despicable conditions without access to proper healthcare and other benefits. There have been, and still are, violent clashes between muslims and buddhists in this state. Ngapali, despite being located in the midst of this, has been spared much of the riots and problems associated with Rakhine state. Nevertheless, last year there were riots in the nearby town Thandwe which led to a curfew both in Thandwe and in Ngapali beach. It started with the burning of muslim houses in Thandwe town, something that led buddhists in the area to hang out flags in their gardens stating “Buddhist household, do not burn”.
In addition to the violent conflicts in the state, there are other and more local problems in Ngapali. The fishermen have always used the beach for drying fish. Today the tourists use the pristine beach for sunbathing and the hotel owners consider the smell of drying fish bad for business. The fishermen who still use the beach to dry fish are thus in conflict with the hotels, and the hotels that have allowed the fishermen to continue to use the beach for drying fish are now loosing customers.
The last issue that makes the tourism sector uncertain both in Ngapali, but also in the rest if the country is the Burmese cronies, business tycoons who got rich because of their ties to the former military junta government. They are involved in the tourism sector as owners of many hotels and airlines in the country. In addition, ownership can be very hard to determine, thus making it difficult for tourists to make well-informed decisions concerning accommodation and transport.
Ngapali caters to well-off and unadventurous tourists who want a relaxing time in the sun at a beautiful beach. These tourists are also the first ones to leave if the situation changes for the worse, and seeing there is no lack of beaches in South East Asia, Ngapali’s position as a tourist destination is at its best uncertain. It is the local population who is working in the tourism sector who will suffer if tourists stop coming as the tourists will move on to other beaches.