Thursday, September 21, 2017

Bagan locals seek bigger slice of entrance fee for pagoda preservation

Bagan residents want more. Outraged at the disclosure that only 2 percent of the takings from the entrance fees paid by tourists goes toward the upkeep of the ancient religious buildings that constitute one of the country’s premier tourist sites, they are taking up the matter with the incoming government.

An archaeologist exposes a mural found inside Ananda Pagoda last year. Photo: Si Thu Lwin / The Myanmar TimesAn archaeologist exposes a mural found inside Ananda Pagoda last year. Photo: Si Thu Lwin / The Myanmar Times

The Bagan Regional Development Association, a group organised by local tourist guides, and residents also object to the secrecy that they say surrounds the collection operations of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.

Association chair U Khin Maung Nu told a press conference in Bagan on March 13 that they want to see “at least half” the takings from the Bagan tourism zone to go to the maintenance of the pagodas and regional development.

Last year, entrance fees totalled US$4.1 million, with tourists charged $20 each. This year the fee has been changed to K25,000.

Assuming 250,000 fee-paying tourists – last year there were 240,000 – the income from entrance tickets should be K6.25 billion.

Under a contract signed between the Ministry of Culture and MTF in late February, the government will receive 90pc of the proceeds, while MTF will keep 8pc. The remaining 2pc will go toward conservation and regional development.

“It is very low and shouldn’t be,” Ko Ka Tone, a tour-vehicle driver and Bagan resident, said about the amount dedicated for upkeep. “All our incomes rely on the pagodas so surely we should ensure the pagodas’ full preservation.”

The MTF won the contract following a tender, in which two other organisations also participated.

U Khin Maung Nu said there had been no consultation with residents over the tender or terms of the contract.

“Bagan residents are angry. They are not satisfied with the current policy,” he said. “We get the impression they don’t want to give anything, even for the pagodas.”

He added that the city needed improvements in basic infrastructure, healthcare and recreational spaces, such as playgrounds and parks.

An entrance fee for Bagan was first levied in 1995. Prior to March 1, all of the money collected went to state coffers.

Local resident Daw Khin Moh Moh Aung said that Bagan “needs a better deal”. While the area is home to many large hotels and restaurants, the government has invested little in local development, she said.

“Since 1995, the government has been getting almost everything,” she said. “We got none of the zone fees.”

Daw Tin Tin Sein, a Bagan resident who has toured the world by motorcycle, said the local community should benefit more from the tourist trade. “Nothing has come of attempts by private organisations to improve the situation,” she said.

U Yan Win, chair of the Myanmar Tourism Federation, said they had been collecting the tourism zone entrance fees for two years after beating out two competitors for the tender.

He dismissed the concerns of residents and said they should be happy to get anything.

“We don’t have to discuss this with residents because we won the tender from the Ministry of Culture … The terms of the agreement were decided by the government,” he said. “The local community didn’t get anything at all before we paid the 2pc.”

He said the MTF would use its 8pc fee to promote tourism in Myanmar.

U Aung Aung Kyaw, director of the Archaeology and National Museum Department in Bagan, said the portion of funds dedicated to preservation was not enough to support international experts and the long-term conservation work necessary at Bagan.

“The decision [about splitting the funds] was made by the head department at the Ministry of Culture. We had no opportunity to make suggestions or discuss the matter,” he said. “To support [conservation of] the pagodas, we have a government budget and international donor funds from UNECSO. But this is not much and preservation projects haven’t been finished. So it would be better to recognise that more money will mean long-term conservation of the pagodas, something we actually need.”