Cultural Attractions

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Myanmar has some priceless tourism attractions but they need careful management

The building stands seemingly forgotten, overgrown with trees and creepers, the red brick-work crumbling, empty of people, the ruins surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The site looks dull and deserted, hardly worth a second glance.

But the Heritage Trust Organization sees real tourism potential in the Secretariat building, a throw-back to British colonial times, a pivotal site in Myanmar’s at times troubled history. The building on 15 acres of land is a place where dreams were made and shattered.

On the July 19, 1947, shots rang out in a room on the first floor of this building as assassins shot dead Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San, and his colleagues. Burma threw off British colonial rule a year later and became a free republic. Today, the room remains a Buddhist shrine, a portrait of Aung San on the wall the only reminder of what might have been.

Post independence, the government of Burma chose to use the building as the Ministers’ Office. Eventually, when the military regime moved their headquarters to Naypyitaw in 2005, the place was shuttered.

New lease of life

Today there are plans to refurbish the site and turn it into a tourist attraction. The Secretariat is just one of the many buildings and cultural and historical attractions that could bring a windfall for the tourism industry. But as the Heritage Trust Group seeks to refurbish the building, and other potential attractions around the country, tourism company operators express concern that the country is under-prepared to handle the growing influx,
whether in terms of having enough hotel rooms, hotel room rates, or in how to effectively turn buildings like the Secretariat into viable attractions.

Cultural tourism is the catchall phrase that could be a winner for Myanmar if it plays its cards right. Apart from a few dogged travelers, the country was in many ways off limits for half a century due to the pall cast by the military regime and troublesome restrictions on visas and travel. Now the historical and religious attractions can be buffed up for an increasing number of eager visitors.

High room prices dampen arrivals

It is not just a matter of refurbishment. Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure needs an overhaul and top of the list is the need for accommodation for the growing number of tourists.

Ko Ko Latt, the secretary of the Myanmar Tourist Guides Association (MTGA) says the main obstacle is accommodation for the tourists. “It’s not that the hotel room numbers are insufficient. It’s the price. Last year, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism estimated a 300 percent rise in hotel room price. If we can lower the hotel room prices, more tourists will come. If we can make more hotel rooms, the price will be lowered further.”

Myanmar is enjoying a boom but if high price rooms continue, the country will not be able to maintain the momentum, and it will see a drop after 2016, he told Mizzima Business Weekly.

Ko Ko Latt warns not to be taken in too much by the number of visitors expected for the 27th SEA Games in December, the events the country will host as the chair of ASEAN, or by the many conferences and meetings that will lure foreign business people during this period. A more sustainable base has to be built.

He says he can see potential in Yangon, an air and sea gateway. “Yangon is the main hub. Around this Yangon area, we can do cultural tours to the Golden Rock Stupa, Bago, Twin Tay and Than Lyin. And also we have river cruise lines. There are two or three companies which run the river cruise boats, offering luxury boats with dinners on a par with those seen in Vietnam, Cambodia and China.”

A cultural and historical attraction like Twin Tay might provide a whole day or a half day trip, with the 15th and 16th century Portuguese architecture and ruins providing a lure, he said.

Refurbishing colonial buildings

The Heritage Trust, led by Thant Myint U, sees real potential in the old colonial buildings and merit in turning many of them into museums or heritage sites.

Thant Myint U said that tourists will be keen to visit such buildings as the Secretariat with its important history and links with Myanmar’s independence hero.

“The place is very prominent because our leaders were assassinated in that building,” he said, adding he can see that in the coming years they will be able to provide many cultural tourism programs. Thant Myint U has spent time in a number of countries and examined with interest at how they preserved their historical past. As he says, part of the plan involves the training of tourist guides steeped in the history and culture of old Yangon.

Religious sites, ethnic attractions

Religious destinations are a crucial part of the attractions for tourists. No tourist will leave Yangon without visiting the revered Shwedagon Pagoda and for those who venture further afield there are the temples of Bagan or the famous Golden Rock Stupa in Mon State. These are just the most obvious examples of what is on offer.

Likewise, the culture of the ethnic states will likely lure droves of tourists as the country opens up, assuming real progress is made to end hostilities in some trouble spots. Tour operators say there are well over 100 hill tribe groups, and some tourists make the effort to visit the hill tribe areas, particularly Chin State, Kachin State and Shan State, and study the tribes’ cultures and way of living, and their celebrations.

On particular company, Overseas Adventure Travels, based in Yangon, services a largely American clientele. Their clients seek interaction with the local people. According to a company representative, they arrange roundtable discussions with the local people for the travelers. “On the one side are the travelers and on the other side are the local people. They interact with each other. We arrange these discussions in Shan State. There are several tribes in Shan State, Da Nu people, Pa Oo people, Pa Laung people and the Shan people themselves. Using this approach, the travelers learn about the people, the place and how they live.”

The jewel in the crown

Of course, any discussion about cultural and religious sites in Myanmar cannot forget about the ancient city and temple complex of Bagan. But there may be a lesson in the dangers of trying to spruce up historical and religious sites for visitors. It needs to be done right.

International historians threw their hands up in horror a few years ago over the badly handled efforts of the military regime to build a Palace Tower overlooking the 3,000 temples and monasteries that stretch over a 25-square-mile plain at Bagan, and over the poor refurbishment of a number of temples. New buildings were added that are said to detract from the ancient allure of the site. What is seen by some historians as this “historical treason” may hamper the country’s bid to have the ancient city recognized as a World Heritage site.

Just how the old Secretariat is handled as a restoration project remains to be seen. But there is an art to carrying out faithful restoration. How it is handled will affect just how popular this old building will be on the Myanmar tourist trail.

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Source: Mizzima News Myanmar

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