Myanmar Times Reporter Tells about the Woes Affecting Myanmar Tourism

Myanmar, tourism strategy,

An article was released late last week by the English-written newspaper Myanmar Times, giving explanation about the gloom over the tourism industry in Myanmar. Here are some extracts of the long report of the newspaper which believes that a drop in Western tourist arrivals is not the only element to be blamed for the mediocre performance in the last few years…

The Myanmar tourism industry has suffered from a big drop in tourists due to the unfolding refugee crisis in northern Rakhine [Rohingya crisis]. With the number of visitors from the US and Europe declining sharply over the past year, some tour companies and hoteliers have already started putting their employees on unpaid leave arrangements to cut costs.

But the struggle in tourism is more deep-seated than just a fall in western tourists. The problem inherent in the industry is overinvestment and unrealistically priced services. This will take more than short term government incentives to fix. A restructuring of the industry for the long term is required.

Taking measures

Myanmar received 1.72 million international visitors as at June 30, representing, an increase of nearly 700,000  visitors since 2010, according to the  Ministry of Hotel and Tourism .

In the past year though, the number of tourists from the UK, France, Germany and Italy have fallen by an average of 15pc, U Kyaw Min Htin, chair of Myanmar Polestar Travels & Tours, told Myanmar Japon Plus magazine in June.

At a Nay Pyi Taw conference held last month to address the fall, stakeholders in the tourism industry urged the government for better policies and programs to promote Myanmar as a tourist destination. They also discussed ways to improve the industry, such as organising talent recruitment fairs and reducing confusion over visa requirements.

This month, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population announced that from October 1 onwards, holders of passports from China, Macau and Hong Kong would be eligible for US$50 visa-on-arrival at Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw international airports. Visa exemption has been confirmed to passport holders of Japan and South Korea from October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019 at every international gateway into the country. As a result, the number of Japanese visiting Myanmar is expected to double over the period from just over 100,000 in 2017, according to U Ye Tun Oo, CEO of Vivo Myanmar Travel and Tours.

“As fewer European tourists are coming to Myanmar, we are trying to attract more visitors from Japan, South Korea and China. That is why we are giving visa exemptions to those countries,” said Vice president U Henry Van Thio at the conference.

Tourists browse for merchandise at the Bogyoke Market in Yangon. Shin Moe Myint/The Myanmar Times
Tourists at Bogyoke Market in Yangon. Shin Moe Myint/The Myanmar Times

Expensive sector

But fixing the industry will require more than jjust visa exemption. To sustain growth, the industry must first develop more options in accommodation, domestic travel and activities for visitors.

In accommodation, for example, most reliable hotels in Yangon are in the range of expensive four and five star hotels. Between 2012 and 2017, backed by expectations of a tourism boom, foreign investors poured billions into building new hotels.

In Yangon, these included Melia Hotel by Vietnamese conglomerate Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group, Lotte Hotel by South Korea’s POSCO Daewoo and Pan Pacific Hotel Yangon, which was built by Shwe Taung Group in partnership with Singapore’s Keppel Land. Keppel also built a new wing at its Sedona Hotel near Myanmar Plaza.

Few investments have so far been done in budget guesthouses and hostels across Yangon. A few mid-class hotels emerged however in recent years such as Hotel G Yangon, Yama Hotel and Rooftop Bar.

But unlike Thailand, Malaysia and even Cambodia, there is still a lack of credible and affordable guesthouses or hostel options available for budget tourists, and that deters many travellers from visiting Myanmar.

U Kyaw Swa Min, managing director of Grand Lotus Travel and Tours, told The Myanmar Times the trouble with the Myanmar leisure tourism market started in 2012, when room prices were raised without controls. After the country opened its doors, hoteliers raised their room prices by as much as 200% to take advantage of the rising number of visitors and recover losses from the 2007 Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“As a result, our country developed a reputation for being an expensive destination compared to other countries in the region,” U Kyaw Swa Min said.

Infrastructure investments

The country’s infrastructure also needs to improve. On her to-do list to improve tourism, which was revealed at the central committee meeting for National Tourism Development in Nay Pyi Taw, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi listed the upgrade and expansion of existing railways and waterways in the country as her top two priorities for the industry.

“We could attract more tourists if our transportation system is modernised and made more convenient, she declared in her opening address.

By improving the land transport system, tourists will also have more opportunities to enjoy local sights. “That is why roads, waterways and railways should be more promoted for tourism ,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi added.

The State Counselor also recommended promoting community-based tourism, as this would enable tourists to learn more about the country’s culture and traditions. They are about 13-community-based tourism destinations in the different regions and states which are being promoted by the government in cooperation with local tour companies as well as local and international NGOs.

Cleanliness and hygiene are also priorities, as this will draw more tourists who will appreciate “livable hotels or guesthouses which are clean and cheap. Also we need to regulate the street food, just like in Bangkok,” she said.

In a letter to the newspaper following the article’s publication, Bertie Lawson, Managing director of Yangon-based Sampan Travel, explained which are the problems deeply affecting the tourism industry. He indicated that “although diversity in transport would be welcome, overpriced domestic airfares and inconvenient bus timetables are a far more common frustration to local tour operators and prospective travellers”.

“If principles of CBT are admirable, it is too often a hollow buzz word as those creating new projects forget that there must first be a product to sell. Tourists will not pay through their teeth and travel out of their way to see “village life” unless there is something unique or of particular interest on offer”, he added.

“Thirdly, cleanliness in hotels is important, but so is character and charm. There are many clean and soulless hotels in Myanmar. Why not relax the rules that strangle the opening of B&Bs and home-stays?”, he finally asked. Many points to be addressed then…

(Source: the Myanmar Times)