RANGOON — The government has announced that it plans to make 2016 the “Visit Myanmar Year,” in an effort to further boost the country’s rapidly growing tourism sector and draw more foreign visitors to Burma.
“Myanmar hopes to celebrate the Visit Myanmar Year … in 2016,” Tin Shwe, Deputy Minister for Hotels and Tourism, told lawmakers at the Lower House on Wednesday, according to a transcript of the discussion posted on the Parliament’s website.
Tin Shwe said that tourism accommodation was expanding and that there would soon be enough suitable places to stay for foreign tourists. “Now there are around 1,100 hotels in the country, 267 hotels in Rangoon with over 12,000 rooms, so it is not difficult to implement the Visit Myanmar Year [in 2016],” he said.
The minister revealed the plan after Lower House military MP Maj. Aung Kyaw Hnin asked what the government was doing to boost growth of the tourism sector and whether a promotion year was being planned. “[The] tourism sector needs to be promoted more than at present in order to improve foreign income,” he said.
Tin Shwe said the planned year-long tourism promotion campaign fits with the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan 2013-2020, a policy developed with support of international donors that sets out a strategy to develop the sector through focusing on areas such as training for tourism sector workers, developing tourism destinations, and addressing problems in connectivity and communication in Burma.
The minister said foreign tourist visitor numbers had been rising sharply, up from 800,000 in 2011 to about 2 million in 2013. He said that by August this year 1.8 million foreigners had come to Burma, adding that he believed the total figure this year could grow to 3 million visitors.
The Tourism Master Plan plans to raise foreign visitor numbers to 3 million by 2015 and 7.5 million by 2020. Under the plan, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism will coordinate nearly US$500 million in spending on the sector through 2020. In turn, the ministry expects revenue from tourism-related services to rise from $534 million in 2012 to more than $10 billion in 2020.
The opening up of Burma by President Thein Sein’s reformist government after decades of isolation under the former military regime has caught the attention of many foreign tourists, who are eager to visit the once-secretive country, which boasts major tourist draws such as the Bagan temple complex.
Tourist number have been steadily rising since 2012, but tourism experts have pointed to problems such as a lack of quality hotels and guesthouses, poor transport and communications infrastructure, the absence of tourist visa-on-arrival, and an underdeveloped domestic air industry with a poor safety record.
Phyo Wai Yar Zar, chairman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing and joint secretary of the Myanmar Tourism Federation, said a tourism promotion year could be a good strategy to boost visitor numbers, but he added that the government should develop a good plan and commit sufficient funding to it.
“If we will do that, the exact budget for that needs to be specified by the government and they have put the focus more on the traditional festivals across the country, and include activities in which everyone can happily participate and promote that through the media,” he said.
“Other countries [that had a tourism year], they spent money on producing reports and advertisements that are shown on [foreign] TV—that will be needed too.”
In 1996, the then-military regime organized a “Visit Myanmar Year,” but the tourism promotion campaign—launched during the depth of political repression in Burma—was met fierce criticism from the international community, the National League for Democracy and political dissidents, who effectively dissuaded foreign visitors from coming.
Until the start of political reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party continued to advise foreign tourists against visiting Burma.
Phyo Wai Yar Zar said that in 2016 the time would be ripe for a successful promotion year, adding that he believed that Burma’s tourism industry would be ready by then to receive a surge in visitors.
“We did this once before, but at that time it was not as successful as hoped, so it will be the second time in 20 years,” he said. “Now, there are hotel rooms enough and they are quickly increasing… also there will be more airlines flying to Myanmar. So if we now implement a Visit Myanmar Year, the tourism sector is more developed.”
Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.