Threatened treasures

Smart urban policy planning with an eye on preserving Yangon’s colonial-era and heritage buildings will determine the city’s future – and tourism appeal, writes Xinyi Liang-Pholsena

In a region that has lost much of its architectural heritage, Yangon stands out for its intact colonial core, due to years of neglect and stagnancy under the military junta and lack of foreign investors during its decades of isolation. The government’s decision to move the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005 further hastened the deterioration of the already-crumbling colonial-era administrative buildings.

Yet as the country makes unprecedented strides towards international trade and tourism since opening its doors in 2011, Yangon’s faded glamour – made up of a kaleidoscope of cultures, golden temple spires and a rich palette of building styles and types – is undeniably the biggest draw for Myanmar’s former capital, attest tour operators that TTG Asia spoke to.

“As Yangon – and all of Myanmar – modernises, these heritage buildings stand out more and more in the landscape,” said Anne Cruickshanks, Myanmar country manager of Easia Travel. “Our guests see these buildings, even if they are of no historical significance, as monuments and reminders of a bygone era. Almost every guest requests a tour of downtown, specifically so that they can see these buildings.”

Exo Travel Myanmar’s product manager, Thomas Barrows, said: “Shwedagon is one of the most revered locations in Buddhism, and is possibly the nation’s most famous landmark. I think Shwedagon takes care of itself, as long as it remains standing it will be an iconic tourist attraction.

“The same cannot be said of the colonial architecture downtown,” he added. “Many of the buildings are in need of renovation.”

With no formal rule in place to conserve the buildings however, there stands a danger of Yangon losing its venerable architectural heritage although organisations like Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) have been “doing a good job in preserving heritage buildings”, pointed out Khiri Travel’s Myanmar country manager Edwin Briels, reflecting a sentiment widely shared among industry players.

YHT was set up in 2012 by a group of like-minded conservationists to lead efforts in maintaining and restoring heritage buildings in the city. The non-profit organisation, which launched walking tours of Yangon’s heritage sites for international visitors in September 2009, has been advocating a comprehensive zoning plan that encompasses not just the 189 buildings identified by the YCDC but also green spaces, private houses, skyline and the cityscape broadly, according to the trust’s spokesperson Shwe Yinn Mar Oo.

Mika Itävaara, managing director of HG Travel Myanmar is optimistic that preservation will play a more prominent role in Yangon’s future.

“Under the country’s new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi as well as YHT’s figurehead Thant Myint-U (the trust’s founder and chairman), the city’s architectural heritage is likely to be better leveraged,” he opined.

Easia’s Cruickshanks thinks more needs to be done. “In Yangon, as in Mandalay, huge swaths of downtown are occupied by heritage buildings and they are currently sitting empty. We would love to see them turned in to public spaces – libraries, galleries, museums, restaurants, etc – so that everyone can enjoy them. This would also, hopefully, generate enough income to cover the upkeep and any ongoing preservation work.”

Even before Myanmar’s transition to an open economy in 2011, a handful of historic buildings had already gone down the hospitality route, with the Strand Hotel and Belmond Governor’s Residence as notable examples.

More converts into luxury properties are expected in the pipeline. The former headquarters of Myanmar Railways, which was built in the 1880s, will be redeveloped as the Peninsula Yangon, while Kempinski Hotel is due to open in the former Police Commissioner’s Office by end-2016.

In light of recent developments, YHT’s Shwe Yinn Mar Oo cautions against seeing tourism as a quick anecdote to conservation. “We are of the opinion that heritage preservation and tourism development in downtown Yangon are directly proportional to each other. We believe the tourism plays a vital role in preserving the unique urban landscape of Yangon.

“However, too much gentrification, i.e. repurposing all of the heritage buildings into tourism-related amenities would bring more harm than good. Tourism should benefit the local residents instead of driving them out of downtown,” she commented.

 

Source: TTG Asia

 

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