Tourism for a better Myanmar

A fisherman casts his net out to the Irrawaddy River. (Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project)

‘Responsible tourism’ is a term that is widely misused, especially in Southeast Asia. Thankfully Myanmar is home to a handful of great projects that truly fit the definition of responsible tourism. They are not only interesting for visitors but also provide direct benefit to the environment and community. These conservation centers are true labors of love, developed and run by passionate individuals who have invested the time and money to ensure long-term sustainability. Here are some of the best responsible tourism projects in Myanmar.

Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp

Mahouts with their elephants. (Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp)

Elephant camps have a bad reputation in the tourism world, with overworked elephants subjected to riding and circus-like tricks. Green Hill Valley is the antithesis of this. Founded by Tin Maw and Htun Wynn, the couple created the center to raise awareness about elephant welfare and poaching as well as promote environmental conservation. The full-day experience for visitors includes nature walks, planting a seedling in their reforestation project, making paper from elephant dung and, of course, plenty of time with the elephants and their mahouts (elephant caretakers). Green Hill Valley is home to eight elephants, along with 10 mahouts and more than 60 family members of the mahouts, who receive accommodation, food and education.

Planning a visit: Green Hill Valley is located around 40 kilometers west of Kalaw. Advance bookings are required and the tour lasts a full day, including lunch. Prices start at US$90 per person. Email: [email protected]

Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary

Burmese Star Tortoises were, until recently, on the brink of extinction. The beautiful pattern on their shells has made them a prize for exotic pet collectors, fetching up to US$5,000 on the black market. But thanks to the team at Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, the tortoise’s population is making a comeback. Since it’s founding in the mid-2000s, the center, in partnership with the Myanmar Government and World Conservation Society, has bred more than 10,000 star tortoises and released nearly 1,000 back into the wild. Last year, a visitor’s center was added with excellent information about the tortoises and the center along with an educational initiative for local villagers.

Burmese Star Tortoises. (Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary)

Planning a visit: Minzontaung is a great stop between Bagan and Mandalay, located in Natogyi which is around half way between the two cities. They do not have guides on site so advance bookings are required. Allow 30 minutes to visit the main sanctuary and information center; an extra hour is suggested to track tortoises in the wild with a forest ranger. Packages including transport from Bagan to Mandalay can be made through Khiri Travel: [email protected]

Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project

Myanmar’s Irrawaddy dolphins have a special place in the hearts and minds of many locals. These gentle blunt nosed creatures famously join in ‘cooperative fishing,’ working alongside net-casting fishermen to increase their catch. Yet over the years their population has dwindled, dipping below 60 in the early 2000s. In 2005, the World Conservation Society and the Myanmar Department of Fishers established a protected area just north of Mandalay to reduce threats to the species and educate local residents.

Irrawaddy dolphins. (Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project)

Today the population is believed to be 74-80 dolphins, a slow but impressive improvement. The Living Irrawaddy Dolphin project aims to keep this momentum going by incentivizing the villagers through ecotourism and ongoing education. The one- to three-day boat trips benefit seven riverside communities, home to more than 50 families. The locals provide transport, meals, help with accommodation and lead interactive experiences such as cooperative fishing, forest walks and more. Of course, they hope you will spot the elusive dolphins during the trip but if not, you will at least walk away with a greater appreciation of the Irrawaddy and its fragile ecosystem.

Planning a visit: Tours run from late September through May. One-day visits are possible, but it is strongly recommended to join an overnight trip to get a deeper understanding of the dolphins and the fishing communities in the area. The evening is spent in a comfortable cabin or in a luxury tent on the river’s edge. Packages include guide, community excursions (which directly benefit the locals), boat hire and meals. Two-day trips cost US$165 per person with discounts available for locals and special groups. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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