RANGOON — Burma’s Ministry of Immigration and Population will begin issuing electronic visas for tourists at six additional locations, a ministry official told The Irrawaddy on Friday.
The e-visa registration, introduced on Sept. 1, is currently only available to visitors entering the country through the Rangoon International Airport. The ministry said that service will soon be extended to Mandalay, Naypyidaw and four overland crossings along Burma’s border with Thailand.
Applicants must complete an online visa form, verify that all information is correct and make a credit card payment for fees. Those approved will receive an emailed document that they can print out and present to immigration officers upon arrival.
Turnaround time averages five days, and the visa is priced at US$50 per person. After approval, travelers have 90 days to enter Burma, where they can stay for up to 28 days.
“We’re going to set up the machines, and we’ll conduct trials in Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Afterwards we plan to start offering e-visas in four Thai-Burmese border stations,” said Maung Maung Than, director-general of the immigration ministry.
The government has only recently allowed overland entry into Burma; four checkpoints along the Thai-Burmese border—at Myawaddy, Tachilek, Kawthaung and Htee Khee—only offered one-day passes or specially issued travel exemptions until just last year. The change effectively meant that visitors can enter through a border station and travel to other parts of the country via land or air, whereas they were previously restricted to areas close to the border and were required to go out the way they came.
The number of people entering Burma has increased dramatically since the overland borders were opened, a trend that the government would like to see continue as the tourism industry begins to take off in the once-closed country.
“As you know, many international airlines now offer direct flights to Mandalay and Naypyidaw,” said Maung Maung Than, “and many people are coming in through the border stations. That’s why we’re going to expand the availability of e-visas.”
In the initial phase of implementation, 41 nationalities were eligible for e-visas. Eligibility has expanded to include a total of 67 countries at present.
Ministry figures indicate that 13,283 e-visas have been issued during the trial period, which began on Aug. 10. A total of 16,087 applications were submitted, according to the ministry. The majority of applicants were United States citizens.
Phyo Wai Yar Zar, chairman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing, said that the number of e-visa applicants is still far lower than the total number of visitors entering the country via overland crossings, which demonstrates a demand for expanding availability. He predicts that the service will account for a larger percentage of visas as time goes on.
“The reason for the low number of applicants is simply that e-visas have only been available for a short time. Many tourists don’t yet realize that it’s even an option, and it’s still only available for those entering through the Rangoon airport,” he said. Phyo Wai Yar Zar added that his organization, a non-governmental industry promotion and coordination body, will “welcome this expansion of services.”
The total number of visitors to Burma topped one million annually for the first time in 2012, after the onset of political reforms. Many foreigners formerly boycotted the country at the request of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, so as to avoid contributing money to the repressive military regime.
But many are now optimistic that tourism could become a major driver of economic development. In 2012, the government created a Tourism Master Plan with the help of foreign consultants, with the goal of 3 million foreign visitors by 2015 and 7.5 million by 2020.
In early October, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced plans for a “Visit Myanmar Year” campaign in 2016, in a renewed attempt to revamp the tourism sector amid chronic complaints of accommodation shortages and weak infrastructure for communications and transit.