Land prices at a coastal resort town in Rakhine state have risen to an “unprecedented level” over the past three years, according to local villagers.
The Kyaukalatt tract in Thandwe is famous among hoteliers for its beautiful beaches. Investors and brokers are said to be racing for a plot and many long-time residents are selling up and moving inland.
“Some people ask for over 1 billion kyat [US$740,000] for a plot,” said Thabyuchai villager Hla Maung Than.
Almost all Kyaukalatt natives have reportedly sold their land and moved to inland areas.
Than Htut Zaw, resident at Kwinpaing village, said: “The prices have climbed since two years ago. Villagers didn’t make much money back then – just around 200 million kyat. Now the prices are as high as 800 million kyat for a plot.”
The village tract is 40 kilometres from Thandwe and foreign visitors are drawn to the village to snorkel and dive over the coral reefs during the dry seasons.
Life’s a beach – or a refugee camp
The tourism development boom is happening just 500km south of a military crackdown in Rakhine that has seen more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims flee their homes and over the border into Bangladesh refugee camps. Citing numerous testimonies of rape and murder from Rohingya refugees, as well as an apparent scorched-earth policy of burning villages by the Myanmar military, the United Nations and other international agencies say the crackdown is a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority. The Rohingya have faced restrictions on movement, access to healthcare and education and other rights since being delisted as a recognised ethnic group in 1982, despite having lived in Rakhine for generations.
AFP reports that after the bloodshed broke out in late August, Myanmar tourism operators witnessed a cascade of cancellations.
“Almost all the trips scheduled for October and November were cancelled due to instability in the country, because of the situation in Rakhine state,” said Tun Tun Naing from New Fantastic Asia Travels and Tour, an agency that leads trips to the pristine beaches and mist-shrouded lakes that dot the lush country.
“Most groups in Japan, Australia and other Asian countries cited security reasons and some Europeans have clearly said they boycotted because of the humanitarian situation,” he told AFP.
Some distinguished guests also kept their distance, with Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and his wife, Camilla, deciding to skip a stop in the former colony during an autumn tour of Asia.
There are fears the refugee crisis could throw Myanmar’s fledgling tourism sector back to the dark days under military rule, when many travellers passed over the pariah state to avoid lining the pockets of generals who brutally suppressed human rights.
That had started after the junta began a transition to democracy that brought elections in 2015 won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Foreign tourist arrivals then boomed. The first half of 2017 kicked off well with a 22 per cent increase in visitors compared to the previous year, according to Tourism Ministry figures cited by AFP. But at the end of August, northern Rakhine was in flames.
A few hours south of the conflict zone in Rakhine state lies Mrauk-U, an ancient capital and once-popular archaeological site.
Two months into the crisis, locals said the site was empty of the tourists normally buzzing around its ruins.
“All people who live on tourism are out of work now,” guide Aung Soe Myint told AFP.
Yet the boom in tourist development 500km down the coast in Thandwe suggests that investors are hopeful visitors will eventually return to Rakhine in large numbers. But that could depend on Myanmar finding a peaceful resolution to a crisis that has left more than 620,000 former residents of the state facing winter in what’s thought to be the world’s largest refugee camp. Bangladesh and Myanmar have reached an agreement on repatriating the Rohingya, but international agencies including the UN warn that conditions in Rakhine are so far neither safe nor adequate for their return.