By Myanmar Eleven
In 2011, Bagan welcomed 120,000 visitors. Last year, when the country welcomed 3 million visitors, nearly one third went to Bagan, according to the Ministry of Culture.
There are more than 77 licensed hotels, motels and guesthouses and 2,386 rooms, according to the Hotels and Tourism Ministry.
The tourism prospects for the pagoda city are bright, especially if the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, and its World Heritage Committee this week agree to the nomination of Bagan as a cultural World Heritage site. Instead of getting the prestigious listing for Bagan, Myanmar succeeded in winning its first World Heritage listing for the Pyu historic cities last year. Three of which – Halin, Beikthano and Sri Kshetra – were added to the World Heritage List in June. The Pyu kingdom flourished for more than 1,000 years, between 200BC and 900AD. The three cities are partially excavated archaeological sites.
The meeting will run until July 8 in Bonn, Germany.
Since 1996, Myanmar has put 14 sites on the tentative list, mostly waiting to be listed as natural sites. This includes the Myeik Archipelago which has recently gained increasing popularity among foreign visitors who are ready to pay the hefty entrance fees to visit the tropical islands.
Once on the list, technical and financial assistance can be received to help preserve sites and the listings helps promote the sites as tourist attractions.
A long quest
Bagan was put on the tentative list in 1996. It was expected to become the country’s first cultural World Heritage site due to its popularity with tourists.
Located on a low-lying area along the Ayeyawady River in Mandalay Region, the Bagan kingdom flourished between the 9th and 13th centuries and was the first power to unify the regions that have become modern Myanmar.
Bagan houses the spectacular 11th- to 13th-century ruins of more than 3,000 Buddhist temples and monuments spread over an 80-square-kilometre plain.
"The archaeological site is at the top of the country's priority list for future World Heritage nominations,” Unesco said at an international consultation meeting held in Bagan in October 2014. “The meeting will bring together experts from around the world to discuss the future safeguarding of Bagan under the World Heritage framework with national and local stakeholders. These inputs will be particularly timely in the face of accelerated development at the site caused by a boom in visitor arrivals and tourism-related investment.”
Eight sites were submitted to the tentative list in 1996, but shortcomings in the then-junta's applications have been blamed for the failure to have them included. Myanmar ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1994 and first nominated the site in 1996. The nomination was referred back to Myanmar due to a lack of site boundary definition and legislative and management plans. Following this recommendation, the authorities adopted laws to better protect cultural heritage and adopted a national legal and management framework, according to Unesco.
Countries are encouraged to prepare their tentative lists with the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, regional governments, residents, NGOs and other interested parties.
Preparations have been made in the previous months to add the more Bagan temples and pagodas to the list.
Deputy Culture Minister Sandar Khin told the Upper House last October that the process was time consuming.
"There are so many rules for this," she said, explaining that these included administrative issues, border delineation and preservation. More work has to be done before a site is included on the list,” she said.
More work ahead
Myanmar is busy working out plans to boost its tourism industry. A tourism master plan is being implemented in 12 areas: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Kyaikhtiyo, Ngapali, Ngwesaung beach, Putao, Myeik, Naga, Mount Natmauk, Loikaw and Inle.
For Bagan in particular, the Hotels and Tourism Ministry last week released preliminary plans for tourism development, completed in cooperation with the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA).
According to the preliminary plans, the authorities will focus on maintenance and the upgrade of ruins. Moreover, the basic tourism industry, distribution of tourism information, manufacturing of souvenirs, holding of tourism exhibitions and media programmes will be included.
The ministry and JICA last November kicked off the three-year tourism development programme for the city.
Bagan is now designed to become a green city, according to the Environmental Conservation and Forestry Ministry but a concrete plan is not yet available.
Having been a major destination for years, Bagan has witnessed some bumps along the development path.
The increasing demand for hotel rooms has sparked massive development projects. Some hotels were built next to pagodas and some were cleared to make way for exotic dining experiences. Last year, the fifth hotel zone was introduced. This time, the authorities ensured that the buildings are not located in the vicinity of the temples. President Thein Sein has said hotels should avoid cultural zones.
The Hotels and Tourism Ministry has also voiced concerns that hot-air balloons could damage the site.