Despite Growing Tourist Demand, Burma Keeps a Lid on Homestays

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 20 February 2014

RANGOON — Although foreigners are not officially allowed to stay in Burmese homes, the Ministry of Tourism will continue to allow homestays at a limited number of destinations, an official said this week.

Homestays are increasingly popular among visitors to other Asian countries, and would offer some relief to the chronic lack of hotel rooms currently faced by Burma’s tourism industry.

But the government remains suspicious of foreigners lodging with locals. Officials say there are no plans to lift a general ban on homestays, part of restrictions dating back to military rule that ban unauthorized guests in Burmese homes, including other Burmese.

At a hospitality and tourism conference in Rangoon on Wednesday, Aung Zaw Win, the director general of the Tourism Ministry, told The Irrawaddy that exceptions to this rule already existed.

“For example, at Putao in Kachin State, northern Burma, it takes tourists many days to reach the snowy mountains from Putao and there are no hotels, so we must allow them to stay at villagers’ homes, with the cooperation of regional authorities,” he said.

“Then there are the trekking places between Inle Lake and Kalaw Township [in Shan State], we are allowing foreigners to stay in this place, at homestays and monasteries.”

Aung Zaw Win said officials were concerned that people from different cultures, speaking foreign languages, could clash with Burmese if they stay in their homes.

But there may be an alternative, he said.

“I just learned about a homestay scheme in Malaysia where there are specific homes for foreigners in Malay villages,” he said. “That means foreigners can’t stay in villagers’ homes. They are separate, but have the same facilities as a native home.”

He said the ministry would continue to work with local governments around the country in locations that might be suitable for homestays.

Despite the concern of a culture clash, tourism officials are also looking to develop community-led tourism projects, and are planning workshops in some rural areas on community tourism.

Kyaw Min Htin, managing director of Myanmar Polestar Travel and Tours, said an alternative to homestays was the bed and breakfast (B&B) model, where homeowners can set up a small business with rooms and food for tourists.

“The B&B service is not the same as a homestay, which just provides accommodation, so it could happen soon in Burma,” he said, adding that B&Bs could work both in rural areas that lack hotels and in Rangoon, where room prices have been driven up by short supply.

Tourism numbers in Burma grew to 2 million in 2013, and the government is planning for 3 million this year.

Aung Zaw Win said new hotel rooms were being constructed, and the number are increasing to meet the growing demand.

“We’re issuing hotel licenses almost every day at the moment, it means many businesses know that the tourism sector is booming. Many hotels
are expanding their number of rooms at the main tourists destinations,” he said.

According to the ministry’s figures, some 923 hotel licenses were issued in 2013, up from 721 the previous year. The number of rooms available in the country also increased from 25,000 in 2012 to 36,000 in 2013, the figures say.