World Tourism Body Urges Quality Over Quantity

By May Lay 26 July 2012

Burma should adopt “a value-based strategy, not a volume-based strategy” with a view to tourism, according to a leading expert.

“The world already knows about Myanmar—the media has provided plenty of free promotion. The challenge now is to manage the influx of tourists in a way that ensures that the benefits of increased tourism flow down to the people—which among other things will help to combat poverty—and assist the country in conserving its natural and cultural resources for future generations,” said Hans Carl Jacobsen, a consultant to the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), speaking at a recent tourism workshop in Burma.

Jacobsen was accompanied by the UNWTO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Xu Jing, who echoed the sentiment.

“Sometimes less is more,” said Xu. “Yangon [Rangoon], for example, has many beautiful old buildings that could be restored instead of destroyed for new development. Myanmar should focus on its unique strengths and ensure its infrastructure is improved to match future demand.”

In 2011, Burma officially welcomed 391,000 international visitors, an increase of almost 26 percent from the previous year. However, much of that figure includes businesspeople and cross-border visitors. The true number of tourists is probably closer to 25,000, say independent analysts, which is a far cry from countries such as neighboring Thailand, which boasts figures of between 11 and 15 million tourists every year.

Burma rejoined the UNWTO in May following the easing of Western sanctions and a program of democratic reform initiated by the new government in Naypyidaw, which included a marked effort to open the country to foreign tourists after decades of isolation.

But Burma’s infrastructure is woefully inadequate to accommodate an influx of tourists—transport links, airports and telecommunications require mass investment. In addition, of the country’s sparse number of hotel rooms—25,000—only 8,000 are suitable for international visitors, say tourism officials.

Many of those hotels and guest houses have increased their room rates by approximately 300 percent over the past year.

On July 17, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced that a cap of US $150 should be put on all hotel room rates, although exceptions were immediately put in place for high-end hotels that could boast international standards, such as Rangoon’s The Strand and the Sedona which run at between $300 and $800 per night during the high season.

“We have increased our room rates three times over the past year,” said a representative of the Eastern Hotel in the former capital. “Last year, we charged 12,000 kyat [$14] for a double room, but this year we are asking 35,000 kyat for foreigners and 30,000 kyat for Burmese nationals.”

Jacobsen encouraged those in the Burmese tourism sector to advance “step by step” and suggested that officials concentrate on being service-oriented rather than profit-driven.

“We have to think about the disadvantages that a mass flow of tourists would bring immediately,” said Xu. “Burma should prepare and think about how to cope with this issue.”