Tourism’s New Trails
By Kyaw Hsu Mon 3 October 2014
YANGON —The government expects some 3 million tourist arrivals this year and is targeting 5 million for 2015. However, many ongoing issues continue to hamper the local industry. The Irrawaddy spoke with U Phyo Wai Yar Zar, chairman of All Asia Exclusive Travel, as well as chairman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing and Joint Secretary of the Myanmar Tourism Federation, on the recent rise of the tourism industry.
Question: What were the difficulties when you first started?
Answer: I’ve always believed these are not difficulties, these are challenges. If you can pass over these challenges, you will be able to reach the next stage. The first challenge was in getting customers in that period. And then, poor communication [infrastructure] in Myanmar created further challenges even after we got customers. The Internet connection was very slow. We’ve now tried to upgrade our own website to promote the company and seek new customers. The big challenge was how to receive payment from customers as we didn’t have foreign bank accounts here. Myanmar companies were facing problems regarding payment by foreign customers due to US sanctions at that time. So the options were that we received payment when the customers were in Yangon or by using our relatives and colleagues’ bank accounts. It was no issue for joint-venture companies, but for small companies, we faced this problem. After three or four years, hotels and airlines started to know what we were doing. The relationship with them has become stronger.
Q: Where were the main tourist destinations at that time? Have any destinations changed?
A: Major destinations have not yet changed. [They still include] Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Ngapali Beach, Ngwe Saung beach and Kyite Htee Yoe in Mawlamyine. After the country has fully opened and we have ceasefire agreements with armed groups, there will be many new potential destinations in Karen State and Mon State. There are no big difficulties in developing new tourist attractions there. For example, Myawaddy on the Thai-Myanmar border is very easy to access for tourists. There are no restrictions at all now. [In the past] we had to obtain permission to enter from the local authorities.
Q: Has the government’s decision to open more border checkpoints helped increase tourist arrivals in Myanmar?
A: There is no disadvantage by opening border checkpoints. We were only selling Myanmar packages before but now we can sell package tours to Myanmar and Thailand’s north and west together. We can also sell tour packages to Muse [in Shan State] and Shwe Li [in China] areas. There are some restrictions on the China side, but the Myanmar side is ready.
There are many new tourist destinations in Myanmar and we have more than 130 ethnic groups living here. There are very big changes in cities like Mandalay, with some people saying that it has become a Chinese city. It has become popular with foreign visitors. If the transportation infrastructures get better, we can reach many new destinations. A new Loikaw [Kayah State] to Mae Hong Son [Thailand] road will open in the coming peak season. The road to Dawei from Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province will also boost tourism, although we will have to wait for better road conditions.
Q: Can you see any other new potential destinations in Myanmar for the future?
A: The Myeik Archipelago is also a potential tourist site. Many foreign investors are quite interested to invest there. There are many places to visit in Dawei city too. With better road conditions in this area, tourists can go through Thailand from Mawlamyine [Mon State] within one day.
Q: How important is the role of State and Regional governments to improve the tourism industry in Myanmar?
A: We need their involvement. I heard that they have been given authorization by the Union Ministry to improve the tourism industry. Many State chief ministers are very eager to promote tourism in their region. Kayah Chief Minister U Khin Maung Oo and Karen State Minister U Zaw Min are very willing to promote tourism in their areas. There will be a workshop for tourism and the peace process in Kayah State next month. In Chin State also, there are many potential tourist sites and their chief minister is also very willing to promote the region.
Q: How have the conflicts in northern Kachin State and western Rakhine State impacted the tourism industry?
A: Security and tourism are directly related. Local or foreign visitors won’t go to such conflict areas. As I am chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing, I have to lobby my industry to other people too. When I met British Ambassador Andrew Patrick last week, I informed him on the current situation. Some countries have told their citizens which places they shouldn’t visit. In Mrauk U, Rakhine State, there is no more conflict but they will have to pass through from Sittwe where there is still some conflict. So I requested that the ambassador reduce some warnings telling their citizens not to go there. He said he would like to do it, but it depends on the political situation here, and he has a responsibility to his country’s citizens. He said there were no changes to warnings for British citizens to avoid Rakhine State. The conflict in Rakhine State is still hard to solve, it will take time. Kachin State is not worse than Rakhine State, because conflict is not happening in city areas.
Q: Do you agree that air safety in Myanmar is an issue for foreign visitors?
A: My view on the air industry is that there will be internal and external factors that impact it. What I see in this sector is the impact of external factors. Internal factors, such as regulations by the Ministry of Transport, are not the issue. There are no restrictive rules for the air industry; they can buy new aircrafts freely. But regarding external factors, travel insurance for travelers, life insurance and flight insurance are still causing difficulties. Some local airlines are trying their best, but I understand that some are still having problems. So I see growth happening in some years.
Q: Do you think the government is going to allow homestay services for foreigners? What about the bed & breakfast program that the government is going to initiate?
A: The government definitely won’t allow homestay for foreigners. Homestay means visitors can be living in local people’s houses. [Although] before hotels and guest houses, visitors stayed in their houses in the past. I expect that the government is going to enact a policy for Bed and Breakfast services soon. When that happens, small enterprises will grow, as well as many job opportunities for local people. The tourism industry will also grow.