For example, netizens said that the recent Pyin Oo Lwin Flower Festival at the National Kandawgyi Garden in Mandalay Region would be more appropriately called the “Trash Festival” because of the mountain of garbage left behind by visitors during the month-long event.
Alongside photos of the colourful flowers displayed at the event, photos on social media showed plastic bags and bottles, and takeaway food boxes made of foam strewn all over the festival venue.
Even though event organisers placed trash bins at strategic locations around the venue, undisciplined visitors threw garbage wherever they wanted.
The Pyin Oo Lwin Flower Festival was just one example of how local and foreign visitors have turned the country’s tourist destinations into dumps.
Ko Myint Naing, a member of the Bagan tourist guide association, said garbage has become a serious problem that needs urgent attention at every tour site around the country.
“The disposal of trash like plastic is a scourge that could adversely affect the tourism industry,” he said.
He said that one of the attractions of Myanmar is its pristine, beautiful places, but they are being threatened by indiscriminate dumping, putting to doubt the sustainability of these places as tourist destinations.
According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, some 3.44 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2017, and that number rose to 3.55 million in 2108. The number of tourists was believed to have risen again last year, and more are expected to visit this year.
The ministry expects more Asians to come to Myanmar this year, offsetting the decline of western visitors caused by the negative response to the Rakhine State humanitarian crisis.
Ko Myint Naing said that while the crisis may be the main cause for the decline, he said another reason could be the serious garbage problem.
“I have seen some tourists cover their noses and hurry past garbage dumps in Bagan,” he said.
Bagan, which was declared a World Heritage site last year, is undoubtedly the most popular tourist destination in the country because of its thousands of ancient pagodas.
Ko Myint Naing said the garbage problem in Bagan started after 2010 with the influx of more local and foreign visitors. He said some visitors just throw trash anywhere.
No one likes dirty tourist sites
U Thein Aung, an environmentalist, said conservation is not only a problem in Myanmar but in all countries. He cited India, which he visited recently.
“When we arrived at their airport, it was clean, but outside it was not like that, and we saw that everywhere,” he said.
U Thein Aung said visitors must feel the same way in Myanmar, since no one wants to go to a dirty place.
He said caring for the environment – including clean water, air, and less noise – is very important for the tourism industry.
“Visitors want to enjoy the clean, natural beauty of a place,” U Thein Aung said. “They like to hear the rustling of leaves, the songs of birds, and the comforting sound of flowing water.”
U Myo Gyi, an executive at Domestic Pilgrimage and Tour Operators Association, said the group usually requires its tour buses to have garbage bins and to tell visitors not to throw garbage outside the buses. “We brief bus drivers and their assistants to discourage littering by their passengers,” he said.
The association has 600 members and operates under the ministry.
However, U Myo Gyi said that many small tour organisers do not stop their clients from throwing garbage from their vehicles.
At beaches and in remote highland mountain resorts, the scourge of garbage is worsening.
The scenic Myitkyina-Puta-o road is littered with plastic and other trash, apparently thrown from passing vehicles.
“I saw some trash on the banks of Mulashidi creek in Puta-o,” one local visitor to the area said recently.
The creek is a famous pit stop for people going to Khakaborazi Mountain, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, as it offers a perfect view of the ice-capped mountain.
Tourism’s huge footprint
A study by the UN Environment Programme found that tourism’s consumption of key resources – energy, water, land and materials – is growing, which is generating solid waste, sewage and greenhouse gas emissions, and damaging biodiversity.
The study showed that, through 2050, if the trend continues, tourism’s energy consumption would increase 154 percent, greenhouse gas emissions would increase 131pc, water use would increase 152pc, and solid waste disposal would increase 251pc.
The study urged the government to take measures to ensure the industry’s sustainability.
Environmentalists said that would require the cooperation not just of industry stakeholders, but also of regional and state governments, especially in ensuring clean tourist destinations, and environmental conservation and protection.
Thant Myanmar, a local environmental group, has been working with the country’s hospitality industry to find ways to reduce the use of plastics, especially single-use plastics. It recently designed a manual on how hotels can reduce their plastic footprint.
Sara Olk, a travel writer who works for the Borgen Project, a non-governmental anti-poverty group, called on tourists in Myanmar to stop littering, which has become a huge problem for the country.
“Garbage builds up on riverbanks, turning them into landfill sites. The nation is struggling to keep up with waste disposal,” she wrote. “In some cases, it may be better to take items back home with you and dispose of them safely.”
Residents in some tourist areas are taking it upon themselves to address the growing trash problem.
One such example is the Inle Hnin Si social enterprise at scenic Inle Lake in Shan State, one of the country’s most popular tourism spots.
The enterprise was organised by youths and residents of Nyaung Shwe township, which is one of the tourist hubs on the lake.
Twice a week they collect garbage in town with clockwork efficiency and the unconditional cooperation of both residents and businesses. Most of the waste is recycled, while the unrecyclable waste is taken to landfills.