Tourism Industry Observer: ‘The Government’s Tourism Statistics Are Misleading’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 24 June 2016

RANGOON — In 2015, Burma’s former quasi-civilian government announced that the country had received more than 4 million visitors; however, industry observer Sabei Aung, chairwoman of Nature Dream Travel and Tours, criticized the statistics as misleading.  The Irrawaddy spoke with Sabei Aung about her take on the current state of the travel industry.

The government said Burma received more than 4.5 million foreign travelers last year, but you say those figures are impossible. Why?

I’m referring to figures collected by the Pacific Asia Travel Association. They stated the number of foreign travelers who came into the country was slightly more than 1.3 million. There is a huge gap between the two figures. Of the government’s stated 4.5 million visitors, 3.4 million crossed the border by land. There is a gap because the association does not count visitors who came across land borders as real tourists. The association assumes those figures are wrong.

The government expects to receive 7 million foreign visitors in 2020, but the association estimates that the number may only reach 2 million. We are suffering from misinformation released by ministries from the previous era.

Can those huge gaps between the actual figures and government-released figures affect the entire tourism industry?

Investors will be affected. After 2010, international investors came to learn about the market but they found that the data was wrong. Singaporean investors came in, but European investors backed out.

Also, hotels have mushroomed domestically but hoteliers have built hotels with their own money and loans.  Those hotels do not receive enough guests and suffer huge losses. The incorrect data mislead local businessmen as well.

How many foreign visitors do you estimate Myanmar may receive this year?

The number will be less than 1.4 million. But I only count those who come on a tourist visas, visit tourist destinations, stay at least 24 hours and stay overnight in the country.

Everyone knows that 3.4 million visitors crossing the borders is totally impossible. There is not sufficient infrastructure, like airlines or hotels, at the border. Even the major cities with large numbers of hotels only received 1.3 million visitors. So the figure of 3.4 million cross-border travelers is not realistic. We went to border areas but did not see many tourists.

So you mean the supply for flights and hotel rooms exceeds the demand?

Yes, it does. The supply is high and demand is low now. This is proven by the continuous promotions run by hotel and tour operators. Some operators and tour guides have had to close their businesses for the time being.

Do you think the new government can handle the legacy left by the previous government?

The new government has been in office less than 100 days. We want to wait and see because the new hotels and tourism minister has been in this industry for 30-40 years and his hotel business has a good reputation. I think he is a good man but I’m worried that he might easily believe what other people say. He is the only person who has changed in the tourism ministry; the rest of the team remains the same.

The ministry is now talking about disbanding tourism associations. I am afraid that doing so would impact the industry. I am against disbanding the associations and in favor of collaboration. Tourism associations still have cronies who look out for their self-interests and we will still have to work with them. The minister needs to handle this shrewdly and ensure unity.

Do you believe the current government can be implement the previous government’s tourism master plan?

The entire industry is working together to implement the tourism master plan. Supporting groups have hired experts to analyze the industry on ground; the problem is whether these experts are qualified to do so. I doubt it. Are they really qualified to survey anything on the ground? Here, some experts don’t even know industry terminology. How can we believe them? There are many people working solely for self-interests.

What advice do you have for the new government as a first priority?

The new government needs to change policies and people at the same time. The new minister should see who works hard and keep them, and he should approach working with tourism associations carefully.