Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world, but it is also one of the most destructive. Contextualised to Burma where possible, the below bullet points give an overview of the problems tourism is often responsible for.
Conflicts over resources: According to the United Nations, the average tourist uses as much water in 24 hours as a third-world villager would use to produce rice for 100 days. This water is used for drinking, baths and showers, in some cases swimming pools and golf courses, fountains and landscaping. In the context of Burma, this is a major developmental issue. According to the UNDP, most areas of Burma lack access to a year-round supply of clean drinking water and domestic water, due to distance, the dry season or pollution. Water quality is generally not tested or assured, which leads to widespread water-borne diseases. In addition, sanitation awareness is generally low, and hygienic latrines are not common.
An estimated 57% of the population lack access to sanitation facilities, and 40% lack access to clean drinking water. However, conflicts aren’t simply limited to water. Tourists often have high expectations of receiving home comforts such as hot water, appropriate cooling, refrigerated drinks etc. This can have conflicts with energy usage. Furthermore, in the high tourist season, local communities can have problems sourcing adequate food.
Contaminated water: Poor sewage treatment, pollution and overdrawing of water can impact negatively upon local communities by contaminating their water. This in turn increases likelihood of life-threatening diseases, especially as water-borne illnesses such as diarrhoea are one of the largest causes of death in developing countries. As mentioned in the above point, according to the UNDP, an estimated 57% of Burma’s population lack access to sanitation facilities, and 40% lack access to safe drinking water. Tourism cannot take full responsibility for the contamination of water, however tourism reinforces the problem by increasing the volume of people and thus the rate of contamination.
Job vulnerability: The tourism industry worldwide is notorious for being unorganized and exploitative. In much of the developing world, jobs in the tourism sector are characterized as being seasonal and part-time, with a high turnover of staff. Jobs in tourism are also vulnerable to external events, such as typhoons, terrorism and political events. Therefore, whilst the tourism industry is seen as positively providing economic benefits in terms of employment for the people, there is often a high level of unpredictability for the local communities who rely on tourism for their livelihood.
Contributing to climate change: It can be argued that flights are one of the single-most damaging contributors to climate change. Therefore, by holidaying in destinations that require long or short-haul flights, tourists add significantly to climate change.
Land environmental damage: Tourism impacts upon the land environment, in particular forests, animals and the local communities. Forests are cut down in order to provide resources to build tourism facilities as well as to make tourist souvenirs. Forests become polluted by rubbish that tourists leave behind. Animals are at risk due to loss of habitation, and also through being exploited or harmed.
Reef and marine damage: Whilst diving doesn’t immediately spring to mind when one thinks about Burma, there are a number of very good dive sites especially around the Mergui Archipelago. This area also attracts adventure cruises, yacht charters and sea kayaking safaris. Whilst the numbers going on these marine adventures are admittedly low, without proper awareness there is still potential for degradation to the marine environment. Direct damage to the marine environment is caused by tourists touching or stepping on coral and marine creatures, and also the damage caused by dive and tourist boat pollution and anchors. Unlike Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where boats attach themselves against floating anchors in order to prevent excessive damage to the reef, no such system occurs in Burma.
In seaside resorts, indirect damage is caused by land pollution dumped into the sea, which also includes water pollution and sewage that is drained into the sea. Other forms of damage relate to the extraction of coral and shells to be sold to tourists as souvenirs.
Damage to the marine ecology has a flow-on effect in the food chain. A breakdown in coral, mangrove or seagrass ecosystem can potentially mean that the food sources all the way up the big schools of fish are in short supply. This in turn impacts upon the fisherfolk, who are now heavily impacted by the reduced numbers of fish resulting in greater impoverishment.
Cultural degradation: Cultural treasures are often draw cards for tourists. By this we define culture as encompassing various human activities such as religion, dance, food, interaction with each other as well as traditional dress and historical monuments of importance. However, as draw cards for tourists there is the potential to devalue the importance of culture in its own right, and for culture to be performed for tourists in exchange for money. In some cases, especially for indigenous communities, the people themselves may not choose to be tourist attractions and therefore may not receive much, if any, of the benefits. Take for instance the Padaung Karenni ethnic group, who are well known for the rings that are worn around their neck and knees. The Padaung are organized into ‘human zoo’ exhibits for tourists’ enjoyment, both in Burma and Thailand. Often the profits from this human zoo go to the tour operators, and little filters down to the villagers. Culturally, there is a complex history and ritual behind who meets the criteria to wear the rings, however due to tourism, women and children who would not traditionally be required to wear the rings are forced to.
Economic leakages: Several international studies have pointed out that the tourism industry generally exhibits a high degree of leakage especially when there is a large proportion of foreign ownership in the industry and also due to the high percentage of import content in luxury tourism. Leakages are generally created by the need to import goods (typical luxury food items, alcoholic beverages), international marketing costs, interest payment on foreign loans and the payment of franchise and management fees to foreign companies. However, leakages don’t necessarily need to be foreign. Rural communities often complain of leakage of tourism receipts back to metropolitan areas. Admittedly in the Burmese context, hotel economic leakages back to the developed world are low, with international class hotels struggling to keep their books in the black.
Whilst the tourism industry opens up a number of opportunities for women to participate, one dire impact of this is tourism. In Myanmar, specialist travel agencies are set up which offer package tours for Thai, South Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese groups of men. The girls ‘supplied’ to them have often been sold by their destitute and starving families. It is claimed that some can be as young as twelve or thirteen years old. However, the tourism is not limited to Asian men, with many websites created solely for the benefit of Western tourists. Wise Tourism state that 4,000 men from Australia alone travel overseas to engage in tourism.
Local community exclusion and exploitation: Whilst tourism has brought opportunities and routes out of poverty, for some it has destroyed jobs and denied people the means to continue their traditional livelihoods. Most alarmingly is the displacement of people from their homes to make way for tourism developments, and also their involvement in forced labour to build tourism facilities and infrastructure, a problem still occurring in some ethnic areas.
 Pattulo, 2006:25
 UNDP, 2007, “Asia and the Pacific, Myanmar Spotlight”
 UNEP, 2007
 Pattullo, 2006
 Paul Strachan from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, in a paper published on 14th June 2006.