DVB Multimedia Group

OPINION: Burma’s tourism sector needs safe hands

Tourists walk around the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (PHOTO: AFP).

Wherever they hear the name ‘Burma’ or ‘Myanmar’, most people imagine a land of ancient pagodas with a wealth of cultural heritage and unspoiled natural beauty.

Although the country was isolated for decades due to a volatile political climate, its opening since reforms began in 2011 has attracted renewed attention from overseas visitors. And the hotel and tourism sector has been at the forefront of this steady development.

The number of tourists who have come to visit Burma has risen significantly in recent years. This smokeless industry – the hotel and tourism sector – has also helped to boost the country’s economy.

In 1996, the previous military government initiated the “Visit Myanmar Year”, offering a plethora of deals and incentives, but with little international interest. However, after a slow start, in 2012 visitor numbers exceeded one million. Since then, those figures have increased by about a million a year, peaking at 4.5 million in 2015.

According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB), revenue from the hotel and tourism sector was 19 percent of the total economy and four percent of GDP last year. ADB estimates that tourism will account for 8.4 percent and 8.3 percent of GDP in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

But it must be noted that those “tourists” entering Burma via a land border, many of whom stay in the country less than a day, outnumber the foreign arrivals at Burma’s international airports.

According to the Ministry of Hotel and Tourism, the total number of tourists who visited Myanmar was 1.5 million during the first five months of 2015; however, only 300,000 had entered via an international airport with a tourist visa.

Looking at hotels regionally, Burma is second most expensive place to stay, cheaper only than Singapore. Transportation prices also continue to be overpriced. Nonetheless, in 2015, more hotels and motels were opened to make up for the shortfall in accommodations around the country, and prices tended to be lower than previous years by some 30 percent.

In addition, there are still some scenic parts of the country that are out of bounds to foreign visitors: areas in Arakan (Rakhine) State; Kachin State; and parts of Shan State are off-limits due to security situations.

According to the Myanmar Tourist Master Plan (2013-2020) that was launched with the help of the Norwegian government, tourist arrivals will ultimately reach 7.5 million by 2020 provided the industry manages tourism correctly.

But if left in weak hands, Burma’s potential for tourism will not be met. Visitors to the region, after all, have the pleasant alternative of going to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia instead.

Read more about tourism in Burma