The U Bein Bridge stretching more than one kilometer across the Taungthaman Lake near Mandalay is the world’s longest teakwood structure and a major tourist attraction. It’s also in danger of falling down.
The four-meter high bridge, connecting Amarapura and Taungthaman, was built in the middle of the 19th century by the local mayor after whom it is named. Its dilapidated, patched-up condition is symbolic of the state of much of the infrastructure which greets the increasing number of tourists to Burma.
The Ministry of Culture is banning the riding of motorbikes and bicycles on the bridge to avert the risk of collapse.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says tourism could become the country’s biggest and fastest source of revenue, and forecasts that foreign visits to Burma will soon top 1 million per year for the first time. The total number expected this year is estimated to be around half a million.
The ADB said tourism in Burma is expected to bring US $390 million in revenue this year and provide income for 50,000 people.
Although still minuscule compared with neighbour Thailand and other regional holiday destinations, Burma has this year witnessed the biggest growth in tourism in Southeast Asia.
While the average increase for the region has been about 8 percent and some countries suffered a downturn, Burma has been notching up monthly tourist gains of 50 percent or more over 2011.
But increasingly the paying visitors will want more than exotic wonders, says the ADB. Many of the facilities for tourists are on a par with the U Bein Bridge, or worse.
The rising number of tourists struggle to find accommodation. The entire country has only 25,000 rooms of all classes in 730 hotels and guest houses. Just as well, perhaps, that some parts of Burma remain out of bounds without a special permit.
Rangoon has less than 7,000 rooms, and Mandalay and Bagan only 2,000 each, said a recent study by the Kasikorn Research Centre of Bangkok, part of Kasikorn Bank.
“[Burma] is undergoing a period of dramatic change, and skyrocketing tourist arrivals are already putting existing tourism infrastructure under enormous strain,” said the chief of the ADB’s mission in Burma, Putu Kamayana.
“To ensure benefits are sustainable and extend to more people, the country needs a comprehensive plan that respects culture and the environment.”
Kamayana’s warning was made as the ADB and the government of Norway announced a scheme on Oct. 11 to help Burma map out its tourism industry needs and targets.
Norway is giving a $225,000 grant to pay for a nine-month survey into the state of the tourism industry and what improvements are needed.
“Tour operators and hotels are already overwhelmed, reporting room shortages and a lack of skilled workers. The rapid influx of visitors to pristine natural sites such as Inle Lake is straining the environment,” the ADB and Norway said in a joint statement.
“The grant will pay for a sector assessment to examine [Burma’s] tourist assets and liabilities, visitor traffic, infrastructure and human resource needs, existing laws and policies, and the role of private sector organizations,” they said.
“It will also look into the cultural and environmental impacts of tourism, and recommend new policies and investments to ensure the industry’s expansion is sustainable, with the benefits equitably shared.”
One of the problems immediately apparent is the rapid rise in the number of international flights to Burma, making access easier. Just this week, one of Japan’s biggest airlines, All Nippon Airways, resumed direct Tokyo-Rangoon flights for the first time in 12 years.
In recent months, airlines from Thailand, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have also announced plans to resume direct flights to Rangoon. And Germany’s holiday market specialty airline Condor plans to start a weekly service to Rangoon from Frankfurt in November.
The new air links are giving managers of Rangoon’s airport a logistics headache: it can handle less than 3 million passengers a year and has limited parking facilities for airlines.
The Kasikorn Research Center estimates that the average growth in Burma’s tourism for this year over 2011 will top 25 percent. Burma still has a long way to go, though, to match Thailand’s tourism figures—19,098,323 in 2011, according to the country’s Department of Tourism.
But the opening up of the next-door neighbour has prompted the secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, Charoen Wangananont, to urge the Bangkok government to develop a “constructive strategy” to respond to the potential rivalry.
There may be grounds for some concern. About 60 percent of visitors to Burma are from Asian countries, with Thailand and Japan topping the list. The biggest single national visiting group in the January-July period was Thai—some 48,014 individuals.
Kasikorn said opportunities exist for Thai investment in new hotels in Burma, but recommended that investors should focus on areas closest to Thailand, such as the pristine southeast coast. But it cited potential problems for construction investment, ranging from unclear land ownership rules, weak or non-existent electricity supply and road access, and water and sewage infrastructure.
However, it isn’t all one-way traffic for tourism. Increasing numbers of Burmese are going abroad. The Kasikorn study estimates that 135,000 of them will visit Thailand in 2012.