Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Burma's hidden gem

Rob Bryan
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Waves lap the vast sweep of pristine, palm-lined sands as a sprinkling of Westerners soak up the sun, their breezy peace punctuated only by the creak of a passing ox-cart. Welcome to Ngapali, a tourist paradise, in one of the world's most isolated nations."I've been to a lot of beaches and this is just amazing," said retired Canadian Hugh Minielly, as he and his wife Mary watched the sun set over the azure Bay of Bengal at Burma's coastal resort of Ngapali.
Just a dozen or so hotels are hidden amid the three-kilometer stretch of palms, including some offering luxury beachfront villas for hundreds of dollars a night.
Despite the allure of its picture- perfect sands, Burma's murky political landscape has kept the beach largely under the radar of most sunseekers, who have typically looked to more well- trodden Asian shores.
Those who do venture to this country rave about the friendly locals, the tasty seafood and, above all, the lack of other tourists. "I've been looking for a beach like Goa, and this is like Goa but without the backpackers. It' so authentic," Minielly, 69, said.
Secluded spots are increasingly rare, as neighboring Thailand can attest: it saw 16 million visitors in 2010, compared with 300,000 in Burma, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
"Thailand is pretty well established on this circuit, especially if you go by what you can see in Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui, where the beaches can be really crowded," said Kris Lim of PATA, ref
erring to popular Thai resorts.
It's a pattern found across the region as beaches fall victim to their own popularity.
For years, India's most tourist- friendly shores were to be found in the coastal state of Goa, where visitors could sip cold beer and feast on fresh seafood, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere.
But overcommercialization, allegations of police-supported drug peddling by Russian gangs and high- profile cases of violence against foreigners have tainted the state's glamorous image.
Further east in the Philippines, the central island of Boracay and its crystal- clear waters are a top attraction for visitors, but green groups and the government say the white sands are losing their idyllic charm.
In contrast, the El Nido area, on the western Philippine island of Palawan, continues to enjoy an unspoiled image, protected by its remoteness, government efforts to protect its environment and the high prices of its hotels.
Tourists use a small aircraft and a boat to get to the high-class resorts, ensuring an exclusive clientele. Local residents and businesses are also careful not to ruin El Nido's main asset, its natural beauty.
In Ngapali, locals and foreigners alike are keen to preserve its rustic appeal - but Burma, too, is quickly changing and tourist numbers are up, with last year's modest figure a nearly 30 percent rise from 2009.
Democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest late last year after a controversial election, still stands strongly against tour groups to Burma, which often benefit the government financially. But her party "would not object to individual tourists coming to study the situation and to find out what is really happening" in Burma, she said recently, softening a previous tourism boycott.
Antonio Dappozzo, Italian manager of the luxury Sandoway resort, warned it would be tough to retain such a peaceful atmosphere at Ngapali, where the main sound from his roadside window a year ago was of ox-carts lumbering past.
"Just a year later, now there is more noise from cars," he said.