Chinese Tourism in Myanmar Growing, While Industry Still Adapts

By Aung Thiha 30 July 2019

YANGON—Chinese arrivals in Myanmar have increased by nearly 200,000 over the last year thanks to Myanmar’s relaxed visa stipulations, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.

Myanmar received 320,882 Chinese travelers from January through June, an increase of 187,185 compared to the same period last year. Japanese and Korean arrivals in Myanmar also increased by about 40,000 thanks to new visa exemptions.

On Oct. 1 last year, the Myanmar government launched a one-year pilot project that grants visa exemptions to travelers from Japan, South Korea, Macao and Hong Kong, and issues visas-on-arrival to Chinese travelers at a cost of US$50 (75,257 kyats).

The country received over 900,000 travelers from 28 countries in both the East and the West in the first half of 2019.

Local tour operators are optimistic that the increase in Asian tourist numbers will make up for the large drop in western tourists visiting Myanmar.

The Union of Myanmar Travel Association reported a 50-percent decline in the number of travelers from Western countries in 2018 compared to previous years primarily due to the Rakhine crisis.

“I don’t accept [the claim] that Chinese travelers are zero budget. Their arrivals do contribute to the businesses and livelihoods of locals in tourist destinations,” said U Khin Maung Htwe, owner of La Min Thit restaurant in Myanmar’s UNESCO town of Bagan. “Though they only eat at eateries arranged by [zero-budget] tour agencies, meat and fish sold at those eateries come from locals.”

U Khin Maung Htwe, however, accepts that tourism has yet to develop to a level that can benefit locals.

Meanwhile, tour operators have criticized the government for its lack of preparedness in coping with increasing numbers of Chinese travelers, who top the list of foreign travelers to Myanmar.

There are still no Chinese-language signboards or notices, such as no-smoking or no-shoes-inside signage, in Chinese travelers’ top destinations, a hotelier who did not want to be named told The Irrawaddy.

“The ministry hasn’t made any preparations. Since there are no Chinese-language signboards, there are cases of Chinese travelers speaking loudly where they are supposed to be quiet. We can’t blame them for this because they don’t know the rules,” he said.

Zero-budget travel is controversial because travel agencies and businesses in destination countries are often linked to or owned by the same, Chinese-based entity, which means much of the revenue goes to China.

According to industry sources, zero-budget tour agencies do not hire local Chinese-speaking tour guides, and are instead guided by Chinese nationals. Further, when making purchases, they use Chinese-based payment services like Alipay or WeChat Pay instead of local payment methods, keeping more revenue in China.

Often, they are forced to buy from shops that are linked to the tour agencies, which get commissions from these shops, industry sources say.

Vice-chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association U Khin Aung Tun stressed the need for the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and for tour companies to make proper preparations in order to cater to increasing numbers of Chinese, Korean and Japanese travelers.

They should prepare to respond to the planned granting of visas-on-arrival for European travelers in October, and for increases in tourism after Bagan’s recent inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List, he said.

“I am sorry to see that the ministry has set very little of its budget aside for tourism promotion this year. In fact, it should step up its efforts to promote national tourism based on Bagan’s UNESCO inscription,” he said.

Myanmar currently issues visas-on-arrival for citizens of all ASEAN countries except Malaysia, as well as for Japan, South Korea, Macao, Hong Kong and China.

The Hotels and Tourism Ministry plans to issue visas-on-arrival for passport holders from Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, Germany and Australia in October.

Myanmar received a total of 3.55 million foreign travelers in 2018, a sharp increase from 2017’s 3.44 million. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism expects to receive 4.5 million foreign travelers in 2019.

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