Photo: A gaggle of foreign tourists gawk at an ethnic Kayan woman weaving at Bagan, across the country from ancestral Kayan territory in Karenni State (Alex Bookbinder)
As cool season comes to a close across Burma, foreign tourists remain a common sight across the country, scaling temples at Bagan, taking longtail boat rides at Inle Lake, and soaking up the atmosphere of downtown Rangoon teashops.
Until recently, tourist masses were an all-but-unknown phenomenon; in 2010, just 300,000 tourists visited the country. Owing to political and economic reforms and Aung San Suu Kyi’s public retraction of a longstanding informal travel embargo, numbers swelled to over a million just two years later.
Tourism is now the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Burma, which, according to government statistics, amounts to nearly two billion dollars divided between 51 projects. In a bid to attract further foreign investment, a second iteration of the Myanmar Hospitality and Tourism Conference was held this week in Rangoon, attracting hospitality professionals from around the country, region and world.
“Myanmar [Burma] is speeding up its democratic and economic reforms, and the country has earned more and more international recognition and interest,” U Htay Aung, Minister of Hotels and Tourism, said at the conference. “As a consequence, we received 2.04 million arrivals in 2013, with a growth of over 90 percent as compared to the previous year. This is the highest record ever in Myanmar’s tourism industry.”
It should be noted that the ministry’s projections may be somewhat inflated: the word “tourist” to the Burmese authorities can cover a multitude of foreign souls – Thai and Chinese truck drivers, gems dealers, border traders – anyone who touches Burmese soil without a professional visa. The true number of touring holidaymakers in Burma is likely less than half of the official figure.
Burma’s tourism ministry currently lists 794 hotels licenced to accept foreigners, and supply is currently vastly outstripped by demand. A number of high-profile foreign-backed projects, such as a new Hilton Hotel in Yangon and a Novotel-branded development by Accor Hotels, are set for completion this year, bolstering Burma’s paltry supply of international-standard hotel rooms.
Burma’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism unveiled a draft tourism master plan in June of last year, which will guide tourism policy for the next six years. Prepared with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank and the Norwegian Government, the plan earmarks $486.6 million dollars towards tourism development from 2013 to 2020. “We have developed a responsible tourism policy to make Myanmar a better place to live in and a better place to visit,” U Htay Aung said.
U Htay Aung stressed the government’s commitment to bring tourist dollars to disadvantaged and remote communities through the development of “community-based tourism schemes.” Three remote areas – Kengtung in Shan State, Karenni State capital Loikaw, and Mount Victoria in Chin State – are designated in the master plan as potential pilot sites for community-based tourism programs, which “will develop practical approaches for community involvement in tourism with special consideration given to the participation of women, ethnic groups, and the poor.”
Human resources are another problem area the government hopes to tackle, as Burma currently suffers from a dearth of tourism professionals familiar with best practices in the global hospitality industry. A number of vocational schools around the country, both public and private, have launched hospitality training courses over the past two years, and in December 2012, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism introduced Burma’s first four-year bachelors’ degree in tourism studies.
Improving air connectivity with neighbouring countries is a crucial part of the master plan, which sets projections of 3.01 million tourist arrivals by 2015 and 7.48 million by 2020. “The government of Myanmar will continue to encourage direct international flights into Naypyidaw and Mandalay,” said Daw Khin Than Win, a spokesperson for the Ministry’s international relations department. “In addition, direct international flights to Bagan and Heho [the main air gateway to Inle Lake] will be considered.”
An ‘open skies’ policy between ASEAN member states is set to go into effect in 2015, which will give carriers from the region unfettered access to Burma’s airports. Increased competition will bring the cost of flights down, and low-cost carriers have already had a transformative effect on travel across the rest of Southeast Asia. According to Bill Barnett, CEO of Phuket-based hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks, low-cost air travel will greatly improve Burma’s attractiveness as a tourist destination. “The landscape [in Vietnam] has changed because of one thing: low cost carriers, which didn’t exist in the early times when Vietnam was emerging,” he said.
Asian arrivals to Burma have steadily outpaced their Western counterparts in recent years, and making Burma attractive to Asian travelers will be crucial for the development of Burma’s tourism sector. “Depending on Europeans or Americans for tourism, that’s a false promise because that’s not going to happen,” Barnett said. “Five years ago, there were five cities with direct flights to Phuket. Today, there’s twenty-two. One in every four tourists who go to… Phuket are from Mainland China. The market has changed.”
But even though tourism in Burma is already a significant source of revenue, the sector has a long way to go to match the competitiveness of neighbouring states. “Although we are now experiencing a glimmer of hope for the tourism sector, we faced many hardships and challenges over the past years,” U Htay Aung said. “I acknowledge that we still have many challenges in terms of infrastructure, tourism knowledge, and awareness of positive and negative impacts of tourism.”