International Flight Access to Bagan Up in the Air

By Simon Roughneen 19 February 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Department of Civil Aviation says international commercial flights to Bagan, a major tourist draw, are unlikely to be granted anytime soon, with charter flights to be the only international air traffic potentially landing near the site’s famed temples for the foreseeable future.

“The current plan is that there will be four international airports in Myanmar—Yangon [Rangoon], Mandalay, Naypyidaw and the new airport, which will be at Hanthawaddy,” said Win Swe Tun, the deputy director of the Department of Civil Aviation, which is part of Burma’s Transport Ministry.

“We are canvassing private sector interest in upgrading several airports and airstrips around the country, including at Bagan and Pakokku [in Magwe Division], but international arrivals to these will likely be just charter flights,” Win Swe Tun told The Irrawaddy.

Earlier, tourism sector representatives had talked-up hopes of making Bagan accessible to foreign commercial flights, possibly landing at Pakokku, 30 kilometers northeast of Bagan on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River.

“Direct international flights to Bagan and Heho [a gateway to Shan State in eastern Burma] will be considered,” said Khin Than Win, director of tourism promotion at the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, speaking at the Myanmar Hospitality and Tourism Conference 2014 in Rangoon on Tuesday.

In June 2013, Burma’s government published a “tourism master plan” that suggested the country could pull in up to 7 million visitors a year by 2020, up from last year’s total of just over 2 million.

Among the possible to-dos listed in the plan was opening up Bagan to international air arrivals, with the document stating that the Burma government “will review its current policy on air services for Bagan and Heho and explore the benefits and challenges of permitting direct international flights to these destinations.”

Bagan, which last year attracted just over 200,000 foreign tourists, is listed as one of six “flagship destinations” in the tourism blueprint.

Burma’s Minister for Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung reiterated a ministry suggestion that Bagan be opened up to international air arrivals to boost visitor numbers.

“Bagan is too small, but the airstrip at Pakokku could facilitate larger aircraft and foreign flights,” Htay Aung told The Irrawaddy.

For now, foreign tourists wanting to visit Bagan usually fly first to Rangoon or Mandalay, before continuing overland or by plane via airports at Pakokku or nearby Nyaung U. Burma’s only other international airport is near the capital Naypyidaw, and a fourth hub, scheduled to be the country’s biggest airport with a capacity of 12 million passengers per annum, is planned for Hanthawaddy, a 90-minute drive from Rangoon in Pegu Division.

Bagan is sometimes billed as a “Burmese Angkor Wat,” referring to the massive temple complex outside Siem Reap in Cambodia that attracts 2 million tourists a year and is served by international flights. Those numbers make up about half of Cambodia’s overall arrivals and are equivalent to the total number of tourists to visit Burma last year.

But Bagan’s arrivals in 2013 are only around 10 percent of Burma’s total tourists—numbers that could be boosted if access to the town were made easier and more affordable.

“Thailand is getting 22-24 million tourists a year, but Myanmar has arguably more to offer in terms of temples and scenery,” said Mark Lettenbicher, CEO of Regent Hotels & Resorts, speaking at the Myanmar Hospitality and Tourism Conference on Tuesday.