Entrepreneurs Cash in on Jungles, Balloons, Tents and Grapes

By William Boot 13 February 2013

Wine making, a tent hotel to beat room shortages, luxury-priced jungle trekking and exotic hot air balloon tours: Burma’s economic revival is spawning some unusual businesses by entrepreneurs willing to tread where no-one has gone before.

The unusual businesses are mostly related to tourism—one area of the emerging economy that is booming while infrastructure development and heavy industry remain debating issues rather than works in progress.

Foreign tourists are flocking into Burma, which had about 1 million visitors in 2012, according to Minister of Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung, with arrivals at Rangoon’s international airport up 50 percent over 2011.

They face a serious accommodation shortage, but some of them seem willing to part with large sums of money for sweaty adventures.

British holiday firm Explore is offering hikes up Mount Kyaiktiyo in Mon State as part of a US $5,320 rugged but luxury-priced 14-day trekking holiday. Kyaiktiyo, a 1,000-meter climb, is home to the Golden Rock, a revered Buddhist shrine.

“Burma has only recently opened up to visitors and after decades of relative isolation the way of life remains largely untouched by modern times,” says Explore in its promotional guide. “On this adventurous introduction to Burma we trek through remote lands and also spend time in the principal highlights of the country. We trek to remote hill tribes of the Shan state.”

In Bagan, well-heeled tourists will soon be able to stay in a luxury tent hotel designed to overcome Burma’s debilitating accommodation shortage. And visitors to the ancient city can get a bird’s eye view—for a price—of all the scattered temples by drifting serenely overhead, carried by hot air balloons.

The Apple Tree Group, headquartered in Vietnam, is offering luxury air-conditioned tents in a new complex near the banks of the Irrawaddy River to open in April. Tent-room prices have yet to be announced.

“Bagan is the hottest travel destination in Southeast Asia,” Apple Tree general manager Kurt Walter said in a statement announcing the tent hotel plan.  “Myanmar [Burma] is on every traveler’s radar screen, and Bagan is going to emerge as the hottest attraction in the country.”

Another company, Balloons over Bagan, owned by Shwe Lay Ta Gun Travels and Tours of Rangoon, is charging $360 per person for 45-minute air balloon rides over the ancient temple-festooned landscape.

But that’s only a taster. The firm, which gets its balloons from a British manufacturer, is offering six-day air tours across Burma later this year—at $8,000 per person.

If some of these business activities and prices seem a bit bizarre in a country only just emerging from 50 years of isolation, where most of the population live in poverty and have no access to mainstream electricity, perhaps the more eccentric entrepreneurs are the Frenchman and the German who are cultivating grape vines in the tropical hills of Shan State.

Surrounded by tropical forest and in a region of the country where political and ethnic instability is not unknown, the hills have become home to not one but two vineyards producing wines which might one day be exported.

Red Mountain Estate is overseen by Frenchman Francois Raynal and Myanmar Vineyard is run by Bert Morsbach from Germany.

Both are striving to produce a range of white and red wines from vines imported from Spain and Italy and planted in misty 1,000-meter high hills. It seems to be working.

“There appears to be every reason that quality mid-level wines can and are being produced in sub-tropical climates including Myanmar,” wine writer and industry commentator Jim Mullen in Bangkok told The Irrawaddy on Feb. 11.

Mullen has yet to taste wines from the Red Mountain vineyard estate but said a recent new tasting by him of the products from the rival Myanmar Vineyard at Aythaya “showed substantial improvement in both reds and whites with a Sauvignon blanc showing all the typical qualities of that grape.”

“Comparisons will be made to Thai wines which have, at least with some wineries, made remarkable progress during their relatively short ten or so year existence.

“Whites from most Thai wineries, generally from Chenin blanc, have always been quite well made but suffer, as do all Thai wines, from ridiculously high taxes making them substantially more expensive than most imports,” said Mullen. “One must hope the government [in Burma] chooses a wiser approach to taxation than has occurred in Thailand.”

The Burmese-nurtured wines might one day chase an export market, but in the meantime the two vintners say they are selling well inside the country to hotels and restaurants.

Red Mountain Estate said it produced over 100,000 bottles in 2012, fetching around $11 apiece—a bargain compared with a 45-minute balloon ride over Bagan.