Tourists reach new beach frontier in Myanmar

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 creaks of a passing ox-cart.

Welcome to 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 Myanmar's coastal resort of Ngapali.

Just a dozen or so hotels are hidden amid the two-mile (three-kilometre) stretch of palms, including some offering luxury beachfront villas for hundreds of dollars a night.

Despite the allure of its picture-perfect sands, Myanmar's murky political landscape has kept the beach largely under the radar of most tropical sun-seekers, who have typically looked to more well-trodden Asian shores.

Those who do venture to the impoverished nation - one of the world's least-developed after nearly 50 years of military rule - 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's so authentic," 69-year-old Minielly told AFP.

The quest for a coastal idyll was dramatised in the film "The Beach", in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a young backpacker who finds a seemingly utopian community on a remote bay, later torn apart by violence and paranoia.

Secluded spots are increasingly hard to find, as neighbouring Thailand can attest: it saw 16 million visitors in 2010, compared to 300,000 in Myanmar, according to the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

Maya Bay on Phi-Phi Leh island, where the movie was filmed in 1999, is now hardly DiCaprio's dream shore: every day, dozens of boats ferry hundreds of tourists to follow in his footsteps.

"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, referring 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.

"More than anywhere else on planet earth, this is a place where people really know how to relax," boasts Goa's official tourism website.

But over-commercialisation, allegations of police-supported drug peddling by Russian gangs and high-profile cases of violence against foreigners have tainted the state's glamorous image.

In 2009 it was elbowed out of the top 10 Indian destinations for tourists, with many opting to head south to the palm-fringed backwaters of Kerala, where luxury houseboats offer peaceful cruises floating by lush paddy fields.

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.

"It's so dense, it is now... too commercial. It's become Phuket," said tourism secretary Alberto Lim last year, sparking a firestorm of controversy as he suggested tourists visit less-developed islands.

In contrast, the El Nido area, on the western Philippine island of Palawan, continues to enjoy an unspoilt image, protected by its remoteness, government efforts to protect its environment and the high prices of its hotels.

Tourists use a small plane 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.

"It's important to have a sustainable plan to ensure the beaches and whatever surrounds the resorts are very well protected," said Lim from PATA.

"We want to see that in 20 years from now, the islands are still as good as ever."

In Ngapali, locals and foreigners alike were keen to preserve its rustic appeal - but Myanmar, too, is quickly changing and tourist numbers are up, with last year's relatively modest figure a nearly 30 percent rise from 2009.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest late last year after a controversial election, still stands strongly against tour groups to Myanmar, 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 Myanmar, she told AFP in December, softening a previous tourism boycott.

Some fear the traveller floodgates will open - especially if a visa-on-arrival process, withdrawn ahead of the election, is fully resumed.

UK-based Wanderlust magazine has rated Myanmar the "top emerging destination" of 2011.

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.