RANGOON—The Tourism Ministry has played down the possible impact of the fatal Christmas Day plane crash on Burma’s tourism industry and argued that it would not affect the growth in foreign visitors. A local tour operator said, however, that flights had been canceled following the crash and warned that foreign visitors were concerned about airline safety in Burma.
“There will be no serious impact on the tourism sector,” Hlaing Myint, the deputy director-in-chief of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism told The Irrawaddy during an interview at his office on Thursday. “Aviation accidents tend to happen even in developed countries.”
On Christmas morning, a 21-year-old Air Bagan Fokker 100 jet crashed on approach to Heho Airport, the main gateway to the popular tourist destination of Inle Lake in Shan State, while carrying 71 people, including 48 foreigners.
The terrified passengers had just 90 seconds to escape the airplane, which had broken up and caught fire. A Burmese tour guide and a motorcyclist were killed as the airplane tried to make an emergency landing on a highway. Four foreigners were injured in the crash.
Hlaing Myint said that despite the deadly accident—which made headlines around the world—international visitor numbers would continue to grow. “Visitors still kept increasing after a jet crash-landed in Sittwe,” he said, referring to an accident in the Arakan State capital where a Myanma Airways flight made a crash-landing in 2009 that injured two passengers.
“We are also expecting no less than 1.5 million visitors next year. Accidents tend to happen everywhere. It’s natural,” Hlaing Myint added.
Since the start Burma’s political reforms and a relaxation of visitor rules last year, the country has seen an upsurge in tourism. The Tourism Ministry told AFP last week more than one million tourists will visit Burma this year, with 400,000 entering overland.
However, Rangoon-based tour operator Ayarwaddy Legend Travels and Tours said foreign visitors were taking notice of the recent airplane accident and some had reacted by calling off scheduled flights with the airline.
“We already have some clients who have cancelled their flights with Air Bagan. They now have to take the bus,” said a manager at the tour operator, who preferred not be named.
Concerns about air safety and other issues were important to foreign tourists and some chose to avoid Air Bagan and Air KBZ, the manager said. “Some of our clients are very concerned about these airlines, they don’t want to use them.” she said. “This limits our [travel planning] options.”
Burmese airlines “should be very concerned about air passenger security and do proper maintenance on their airplanes,” according to the manager, who said that not doing so could endanger the growth of the country’s tourism industry.
Asked if his ministry would ask the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) to tighten security measures for Burmese airlines, Hlaing Myint said, “We can’t order them what they should do. The most we can do is collaborate with relevant ministries. I think our boss [the Tourism Minister] will take it seriously.”
The Irrawaddy repeatedly called the DCA at the Transport Ministry for a reaction, but was told officials were not available for comment.
Aviation Week reported on Thursday that the DCA had introduced new regulations this year, requiring that aircraft imported into Burma must be no older than 20 years, while aircraft already in the country must be no older than 25 years.
Air Bagan’s crashed Fokker 100 was 21 years old while the airline’s second Fokker 100 is 22 years old and will have to be phased out in 2014, according to Aviation Week.
Several airplane crashes have been reported in Burma in the past and local airlines have been criticized over their poor safety standards. Prior to the 2009 crash in Sittwe, another Myanma Airways airplane crashed in Thandwe, Arakan State, in January 1998, killing 14 people.
In 2008, the British Foreign Commonwealth Office warned its staff to avoid Myanma Airways flights and Air Bagan flights that use Fokker 100 aircraft.
Air Bagan is one five Burmese airlines flying domestic routes. Some of Burma’s airlines are owned by US-sanctioned business cronies of the former military regime such as Tay Za, who owns Air Bagan, and Kanbawza Bank Chairman Aung Ko Win, who owns Air KBZ.
Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze