RANGOON — The government will continue the tourism policies set by its predecessor—aiming for maximum growth—and will continue to enumerate day-visitors crossing land borders as “tourists,” in contravention of international tourism standards.
These intentions were laid out by Tint Thwin, director general of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, at the Myanmar Hospitality & Tourism Conference taking place in Rangoon on August 2-3.
Tint Thwin also expressed confidence that Burma would meet its target of 5.5 million “tourists” for 2016, while noting that the tourism sector was “sensitive and depended on the situation in the country.” He also made plain that the government would not be changing its controversial method of enumerating visitors.
Burma’s “Tourism Master Plan 2013-20,” unveiled under the previous government in 2012, prioritizes high-growth, with a target of 7.48 million visitors in 2020—drawing criticism from advocates of sustainable tourism that the target would promote rash policies with adverse long-term implications.
As well as counting day-visitors, Burma counts all visitors as “tourists”—even the substantial proportion that does not arrive on tourist visas—in contrast to other countries in the region.
The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) only includes visitors who stay overnight in a country as “tourists,” while the World Tourism Organization requires that they stay for 24 hours.
The wide mismatch between official government figures and what are considered to be the “real” tourist numbers has created uncertainty in Burma’s tourism industry, and may have exacerbated current problems of oversupply—notably in hotel rooms—in the major cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw.
At the conference, STR business development manager Fenady Uriarte noted that tourism arrivals in Burma for 2015 were enumerated at only 1.2 million by PATA—a stark contrast to the government’s own figure of 4.68 million for that year (a 52 percent increase from the amount claimed by the government for the previous year).
Sabei Aung, managing director of Nature Dream tourism agency, expressed concern that the government’s divergent statistics may confuse, mislead or put off investors.
“After 2010, international investors came to learn about the [Burmese tourism] market but they found that the data was wrong. Singaporean investors came in, but European investors backed out,” she said.
“Hotels have mushroomed domestically but hoteliers have built hotels with their own money and through loans. These hotels have not received enough guests and have suffered huge losses. The incorrect data misled local businessmen as well,” she said.
According to figures from STR, an American company that provides supply and demand data for the global hotel industry, the current supply of hotel rooms in Rangoon exceeds supply by 8.5 percent. Sabei Aung said a similar picture held for Mandalay and Naypyidaw.
“Supply is good [in the industry] but demand has not been keeping up in the recent period,” said Fenady Uriarte of STR.
With a view to furthering “investment opportunities” in Burma, participants in the hospitality and tourism conference discussed expanding into the country’s “many undeveloped areas” and developing infrastructure—including new international airports—as outlined in the Tourism Master Plan.
One of the priorities outlined in the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism’s initial “100 day” policy, unveiled in early May, and discussed further at the conference, was the development of “community-based tourism”—involving the establishment of village guest houses and package tour visits to rural communities—in specially designated areas.
These areas are to include Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State, Loikaw in Karenni State, Thandaunggyi in Karen State, the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone in southern Shan State, Myaing in Magwe Division, and Kyauk Myaung Village in Mandalay Division.
“We hope that more tourists will come since we’re expanding international entry-points, including through new airports. Now, at least 24 airlines land in Rangoon International Airport and five airlines land in Mandalay International Airport,” former Minister of Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung said at the Tuesday press conference.
“We need better infrastructure to welcome them,” he said.
He also maintained that the government would “continue to count all visitors who come here, even day-return visitors.”
The ministry is still counting tourist arrivals for first six months of this year, he confirmed.
According to the ministry’s figures, Burma’s tourism industry earned US$254 million in 2010, $319 million in 2011, $534 million in 2012, $926 million in 2013 and $1.8 billion in 2014.