Myanmar's tourism industry at a crossroads (Feature)
By Ko Ko and Peter Janssen Jan 24, 2011, 4:23 GMT
Yangon - By Myanmar standards, 2010 was a golden year for tourism. Those working in the sector said they hoped recent political developments might make it easier to attract still more foreigners although there was not much faith in the military regime's appetite for change.
An estimated 300,000 foreign tourists visited the country last year, government sources said, a 30-per-cent increase over 2009 and better than the previous record from 2006, the official Visit Myanmar Year.
But even the recent increase does not do justice to the potential of the country, whose abundant natural and cultural charms should make it one of the top tourist destinations in South-East Asia.
'The amount of 300,000 tourists is not too big compared with neighbouring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, even Laos,' said Tin Tun Aung, general secretary of the Myanmar Travel Association.
Last year, an estimated 15 million tourists visited Thailand, 17 million went to Malaysia and 1 million travelled to Laos.
Myanmar's tourism sector has had its fair share of hard knocks in recent years.
It has been hit by the same phenomena as the rest of the world: the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003; the tsunami of 2004; high oil prices in 2008; and the global financial meltdown in 2009.
But Myanmar, also called Burma, has also had its own special hiccups.
There was the brutal military crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, and then in May 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 138,000 people and left much of the Irrawaddy Delta in shambles.
A political stigma is also attached to visiting Myanmar, which has been under military dictatorships since 1962.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democracy icon, previously opposed foreign tourists visiting her country as she threw support behind economic sanctions imposed on her country by Western democracies.
She has since mellowed her stance on sanctions, saying they should be limited to those that have a minimal negative impact on Myanmar's people.
Suu Kyi was freed from seven years of house detention November 13, six days after Myanmar held its first general election in two decades, but it remained unclear how the recent political developments would impact tourism.
'I don't think that tourist movements have much to do with politics, really,' said Luzi Matzig, director of the Bangkok-based Asian Trails company, which specializes in tours to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.
'If a tourist wants to go to Mandalay or Pagan, it's good to hear that 'The Lady' [Suu Kyi] has been freed, but will that influence his decision to visit Myanmar? I don't think so,' Matzig said.
Myanmar tour operators attributed last year's good performance more to a relaxation in visa regulations than political developments.
'One of the reasons why the tourism industry had a good year in 2010 was because of the introducing of arrival visas,' said Nay Zin Latt, vice chairman of the Myanmar Hoteliers Association.
The visa on arrival was introduced early last year but suspended in September, apparently in preparation for the military's well-staged general election on November 7.
Reintroducing the measure would make the country a more appealing travel destination.
Another welcome change would be to stop requiring tourists to buy foreign exchange certificates, which force visitors and tour operators to buy the local currency, the kyat, at an inflated exchange rate.
'We did not get profits as expected last year,' Lin Oo, a Myanmar tour operator, said, citing a weak dollar and the gap between the official and actual exchange rate between the kyat and dollar.
The tourism industry is awaiting the establishment of a new government, perhaps by late February, to see if it could look forward to any positive changes.
'Overall, there should be much relaxation of regulations for the development of this sector,' Lin Oo said. 'We also need good infrastructure, better road transport, telecommunications, internet facilities and easy access to the country.'
Most were skeptical that Myanmar's incoming government, packed as it is with ex-military men, would share the tourism sector's priorities.
'The members of the warrior feudal class that rules the country have never been tourists in their entire lives,' said Maung Zarni, a Britain-based Burmese political activist and academic.
The country's leaders 'have absolutely no clue as to what tourism is all about,' said Zarni, who once worked for the state-run agency Tourist Burma.
'The country does need regulated mass tourism if it is going to bring substantial revenues, create jobs and have a liberalizing impact,' he said.
'All this needs serious vision, planning and an attitude change on the part of the state's leaders, but that's not on the horizon,' Zarni said.
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