Boat Builder Floats New Business to Tap Island Tourism Boom

By Nyein Nyein 2 January 2019

With tourism booming in southern Myanmar, residents of Myeik in Tannitharyi Region are finding ways to benefit by filling niches in the industry. Ko Thein Zaw Min, managing director of Mergui Dolphins, one of 40 tour companies in the area, has found a way to do this by opening a boat-making workshop.

The number of travel and tour agencies in the Myeik (or Mergui) Archipelago has increased since 2015 as growing numbers of domestic and foreign tourists visit some of the area’s more than 800 beautiful islands.

Tourists board a new speedboat as they return to Myeik from Marcus Island (or Lay Kyun) in December 2018. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Ko Thein Zaw Min, 38, is confident that his new boats, which are created from his own designs with the help of experienced engineers and boat builders, will slowly replace the second-hand vessels that operators are currently using to provide package tours of the islands.

He has been repairing old boats since 2016, building several smaller ones himself. His first effort was a wooden cruise boat built for political candidates to use in the by-election campaign in 2012. After that, he gradually got involved in the travel industry after being encouraged to do so by friends.

His 18-foot fiberglass boats (those used for fishing are 20 ft) are more expensive than local wooden fishing boats, but Ko Thein Zaw Min claims they last for nearly 30 years, compared to three to four years for the wooden variety.

Last year he made his first 27-ft speedboat and he plans to make more.

Mergui Dolphins’ new speedboat is under construction at the workshop in December 2018. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Producing his own boats is more cost-effective than restoring old ones. “[When fixing up old boats]we have to buy second-hand boats from Thailand at fixed prices. And we have to pay 25 percent tax to the customs office. They take time to repair. I decided to make my own, so that we could use new boats, and at a lower cost,” he explained to The Irrawaddy.

A secondhand speedboat used for island tours in the Mergui Archipelago is anchored near an island in December 2018. / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

Friends and engineers in Yangon and local boat-making experts helped Ko Thein Zaw Min realize his dream.

Imported fiberglass is used to make the boats, partly because timber is becoming scarce, he said.

“All the materials and engines are bought from Thailand and Japan, and as we use good materials, our finished products are of high quality,” explained chief boat maker U Soe from Dawei. U Soe, who worked in Thailand’s fishery industry for nearly two decades as a wage laborer, is leading the team that is building the speedboat.

Ko Thein Zaw Min’s interest in boats and designing them led him to open this small business, but a lack of capital has limited the scale of his efforts.

“We have limited capital and hope to get a small and medium-sized enterprise loan from the government, if possible,” he added.

Ko Thein Zaw Min’s first, 27-ft. speedboat is on sale for 35 million kyats (approximately US$22,800), including licenses. He said if there is no buyer, he will use it for his company and make more.