Myanmar Gears Up for Tourism

By William Boot 29 December 2012

Myanmar is likely to emerge as a major tourist destination within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) by the end of this decade, says an industry publication.

Yangon will host the country’s first tourism conference, organized by the Myanmar Tourism Federation and Sphere Conferences of Singapore, over three days in February as part of the Naypyidaw’s “Tourism Master Plan.”

“The objective is to provide background and perspective for potential hotel investors while positioning the country as a player with a big future in Asean tourism,” said the Bangkok-based TTR Weekly.

“Most of the big inbound tour operators based in Bangkok maintained offices and joint ventures during the decades of military junta rule, giving them a substantial lead over tour operators in Singapore or Hong Kong who opted to wait for sanctions to lift,” said TTR. “However, it remains to be seen if they will now expand their influence after years of absorbing losses as sanctions held at bay lucrative travel contracts.”

China Urged to Halt Railway

The state-owned China Railway Engineering Corporation is performing route assessment studies for a planned freight railway linking China’s southwest Yunnan Province to Myanmar’s west coast.

The 1,200 km railway will run between Kunming, capital of Yunnan, and Kyaukphyu on Ramree Island in Myanmar’s Rakhine State—alongside the controversial twin oil and gas pipelines currently being built.

Myanmar NGOs have recently called for pipeline construction to be suspended and persistent human rights abuses investigated. The military is accused of helping the builder, China National Petroleum Corporation, secure land and labor.

Now there is concern that more land could be seized and villagers forcibly relocated away from the railway route, said Tin Thit, of NGO Green Land Mandalay.

China has built an ocean-going vessels port in Kyaukphyu, which is also the starting point for the pipelines. China plans to acquire crude oil from the Middle East via the pipeline.

The multibillion dollar railway project is scheduled to take five years to complete. Tin Thit said proper compensation and respect for human rights must be guaranteed before any further work.

Singapore Sizes up Trade Expansion

Tiny Singapore is amongst the biggest sources of foreign investment interest in Myanmar, with teams from the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) making three exploratory visits in 2012.

In November a delegation made a five-day tour, examining business opportunities in financial services, oil and gas, agriculture, tourism and telecommunications.

The SBF said Myanmar’s new Foreign Direct Investment law would encourage more Singaporean firms to seek business opportunities.

Singapore is already a leading investor in Myanmar’s tourism industry, financing hotels and seaside resorts. It is also one of the nation’s biggest trading partners, providing a cargo sea link during Western trade sanctions.

Meanwhile, a Myanmar cargo shipping company which operates container vessels to Singapore is moving into port wharf development in Yangon.

KMA Shipping Company won a contract from the Myanmar Investment Commission to build a $70 million wharf storage infrastructure at Thein Phyu in the Port of Yangon in anticipation of a big rise in container traffic.

In 2011, goods valued at US $1.2 billion were imported into the former capital from Singapore.

Myanmar Debts to be Settled by Early 2013

The World Bank has set the first quarter of 2013 as the deadline to help Myanmar clear its international debts and gain wider access to global aid and grants.

The institution is working with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to resolve the debt issue. Previous military regimes stopped making repayments on loans up to two decades ago.

The ADB has opened an office in Yangon and is currently working with the Naypyitaw government, but still insists on full repayment of a US $500 million debt before providing any more funding.

Earlier this year, the Japanese government canceled Myanmar’s debts in a gesture to aid development. Japan has since become one of Myanmar’s biggest investors.

The World Bank is providing expert advice on restructuring Myanmar’s antiquated financial system and providing aid of up to $345 million to help reduce poverty and improve rural infrastructure over the next 18 months.

Denmark has also announced an increase in direct poverty alleviation aid to $23 million per year in 2013, regardless of EU financial assistance. Copenhagen already doubled annual aid to $18 million in 2012.

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.