An article by John Wendle, National Geographic.
The morning sun shoots rays over the tops of the steep hills surrounding Inle Lake that pierce the mist rising from the waters. Egrets and coots glint white in the sky overhead and glide off into the deep green marsh.
Silhouetted against the newly risen sun are fishermen in their wide-brimmed, conical hats. They paddle by twisting a leg around their oar and balancing on the end of elegant, hand-carved pirogues, creating a picture postcard of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Across the dazzling water world, the clink of hand-powered looms weaving lotus-stem shawls drifts from “floating villages,” where whole communities exist on stilts above the water and cafes serve tourists tomato salads harvested right off the floating gardens of the lake.
Drawn by this beauty, Inle Lake is bursting with visitors, but activists worry that this unique aquatic environment is too fragile to survive the onslaught of pollution and waste that the tourism industry brings. The government, acknowledging the potential for ecosystem loss, has pledged to spend $35 million (U.S.) to tackle the problem. But most fear that it will not be able to act soon enough.
Numbers of Foreign Visitors Soar
As Myanmar has opened up to the outside world over the past four years, the country has encouraged tourism as an important source of hard currency. “Tourism plays a vital role in Myanmar by reducing poverty, enabling employment opportunities, balancing social and economic development, and implementing political reforms,” reports the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in its national plan.
In 2012, around 1.06 million foreign tourists visited the country—almost a 30 percent increase from the year before. Inle sees 77,000 domestic tourists and another 91,000 from overseas.
Hotels have been springing up in Nyaungshwe, a quaint farming town to the north of the lake—with more than 50 built in the past two years and many more planned in a 617-acre government clear-cut on the shore of the lake.
“If it comes too fast, too big, the footprint obliterates what the original, desirable situation was,” said Barbara Bauer, the head of Inle Speaks, an organization focused on environmental and economic issues connected with the lake.
“One of the most important things to understand is the fragility—both environmental and economic fragility—of the lake and the interaction and interdependence on tourists upon it,” she said. “I think the people here are by nature and tradition caretakers of their resources, but they are not yet well enough informed to know how to do this, faced with the onslaught of both tourism and chemistry,” said Bauer.
Still, there are parts of the Inle area, like Nan Taw on nearby Samkar Lake, where tourism is practically nonexistent and few foreign faces are seen. It is here that William Bleisch, a program director and researcher for the China Exploration and Research Society, is hoping to get ahead of the country’s rising wave of commercial development.
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