Tourism Pro: ‘What We Need Is Stability’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 4 September 2015

Burma expected to receive at least five million tourists in 2015, but so far there have only been about two million arrivals. This week the Irrawaddy spoke with Aung Myat Kyaw, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, about tourism prospects for this year.

Estimates have placed tourist figures for this year around five million. But in light of serious flooding in recent months, should we expect to fall short of these estimates?

Five million is very ambitious. By the end of July, we received around two million foreign travelers. It is possible that we can get close to our target of five million, probably around four million, because the number will only increase from now on. But we will still try to reach our target.

Some people say that the flooding will not impact the country’s tourism sector. Is this true?

There has been no impact on major tourist destinations. For example, there was no flooding in Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay, Ava, Sagaing, and Inle, and flooding only lasted for a short while in Pegu, Hpa-an. and Moulmein. Mrauk U was hit by flooding, but it usually does not receive a large number of travelers anyway. Only around 1,000 visitors went to Chin State last year, so there won’t be a large impact there. As for Mrauk U, because of conflicts there over the past two or three years [in Arakan State], it has not been heavily promoted by tour operators. It may see more tourists going there, but it would only be a small increase, from 1,000 to 1,200, not by tens of thousands.

Are there plans to promote tourism during the monsoon season?

We would need the cooperation of the entire [tourism] industry to do such a promotion. There are markets [destinations] that are not vulnerable to rain, and, unlike previous years, the number of tourists who have visited these places during this current monsoon season has increased. Still, it’s not that package tours have increased, but rather, there’s been an increase in the number of free independent travelers [FIT]. This decline in package tours is an issue around the world, not only in Burma. Previously, Burma was seen solely as a country under military rule, much like North Korea. As a result, no one came. But now, Burma is accessible like other places. So travelers come here on a regular basis, and the number of tourists has increased steadily. As tourists’ perceptions of Burma have changed, in a positive way, they have stopped buying package tours. They feel safe coming independently. This increase is also because Burma’s infrastructure has been steadily developing. Previously, we could not use credit [cards], but now we can. Previously, we had no access to roaming, but now we do. We can easily buy SIM cards and access the Internet, which has made planning travel abroad and at home much easier.  We’re therefore becoming a more popular destination for travelers.

But isn’t this FIT increase a challenge to tour operators?

We can look at this in different ways. On the one hand, customers can learn more about their destinations online, making the industry more competitive. And yes, while this is good for customers, because they have more options, it’s a challenge for us. But on the other hand, this will motivate us to do more. Tour companies won’t fall by the wayside because of online agents. We’re here for a reason. We’re here to provide a different service. We’re here because the human element still plays a critical role in the industry.

Bomb blasts recently occurred in Bangkok. Most foreign travelers come to Burma through Thailand. Will the blasts affect tourist numbers?

The first bombing usually does not have an impact, but the second one often does, because it makes travelers feel unsafe. But despite the bomb blast, tourism is still running normally in Bangkok.

Could you tell me about bed and breakfast (B&B) services in Burma?

When the tourism law comes into force, the decision to allow B&B services will be up to division and state governments. They will have to adopt a model that is suited to their particular region.

The general election will be held in November, which coincides with a popular travel time for tourists. Will this affect the industry?

The leisure market is concerned because the number of hotel bookings is not as high as it was last year. But there’s still another market. Journalists and other media observers will come [for the election]. So rather than feeling concerned about this, we just have to make the best of it.

Do you expect to see an increase in the number of foreign visitors after the election?

What we want is stability for the tourism industry. It is also important that we have security. The industry will go on if we have stability and security. We hope to be able to use the Asia Highway as soon as possible. If roads are available, I’d like for people from other countries to visit, too. Critically, the tourism industry will see greater development if there are more border entries, as well as stability and security.