Amid Burma Tourism Boom, Calls for Govt to Aid Development

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 6 January 2014

RANGOON — The government is being urged to play a greater role in Burma’s red-hot tourism industry as foreign arrivals surpass the expected total for the current fiscal year with three months still remaining in the 12-month period.

The government last year projected that international tourist arrivals would reach 2 million by March 31, but the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism says that figure had already been exceeded by the end of 2013. According to the ministry’s latest data, the number of foreign arrivals reached more than 2.04 million by Dec. 31, counting both air and overland arrivals.

Of that total, about 885,000 tourists arrived by air, 6,000 came via cruise ships and 1.14 million traveled into Burma by border entry points.

“We do expect the number of international tourist arrivals to increase to 3 million in 2014,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism told The Irrawaddy by e-mail this week, referring to the next fiscal year.

That would mean a near tripling of arrivals since 2012, which saw 1.06 million visitors.

Among the foreign arrivals this year, Thai tourists topped the table, with Chinese and Japanese visitors following. The country’s biggest draws were Rangoon, Mandalay, Inle Lake in Shan State and Golden Rock in Mon State.

The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and industry leaders have held several workshops based on the country’s Tourism Master Plan, which is targeting an increase in international tourist arrivals to nearly 7.5 million by 2020.

To do that, the master plan lays out projects aimed at improving industry institutions, developing human resources, expanding the variety of tourism destinations, and promoting the management of those sites. Upgrading the quality of tourism services that Burma can offer is also a priority.

Aung Myat Kyaw, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and an advisor to the nongovernmental Myanmar Tourism Marketing Committee, attributed the significant rise in tourist arrivals over the last two years to a raft of political and economic reforms in Burma that have improved the country’s standing abroad.

“The country’s image change has caused tourist arrivals to increase, but we need better infrastructure and security services. That could further increase the number of tourist arrivals in future,” Aung Myat Kyaw said.

The Union of Myanmar Travel Association chairman said better transportation networks, 24-hour electricity supply, and more developed mobile phone and Internet infrastructure were necessary, as was an effort to tamp down accommodation prices, which have been driven up by a supply shortage in Burma.

“We have very good potential tourist destinations around the country. Our country is not an island or a land-locked country. We have potential visitors from our neighboring countries, for example Thailand and China, so the government target of 2 million is quite modest and we can expect more than that in future,” he said, adding that there were many cultural attractions, beach destinations and adventure travel options that could be used to promote the tourism industry in Burma.

“But the thing is, the state and regional governments’ involvement is quite important. They need to know that they are essential to promote the country’s tourism industry,” Aung Myat Kyaw said.

Burma’s 14 states and divisions offer significant potential for a diverse array of tourism attractions, from tropical coastal areas to snow-capped mountains in northern Kachin State. Some of the country, however, has been off-limits to tourists for years, due largely to the various ethnic conflicts that still simmer in border regions.

Maung Maung, the chairman of World Quest International Travel and Tour Company, said he was skeptical of the government data on tourist arrivals for 2013-14.

“As far as I know, group tours this year are significantly lower than last year. Most of them [foreign arrivals] come via border entries [from China and Thailand] as FIT [free independent travelers]. I think the government also counted visitors to the Southeast Asian Games,” Maung Maung said, referring to the recently concluded regional sporting competition hosted by Burma.

“Burma is now quite popular, so tourists want to see and visit, but as a long-term plan, the government needs to improve infrastructure. Tourists say that accommodation in Burma is expensive and good service is lacking, so the sustainability of tourist arrivals totally depends on the government,” he said, adding that despite a wealth of natural beauty in Burma, other Asian countries without similar allure were still besting the Southeast Asian nation.

“We have to ask a question: Why is Burma still so low in terms of tourist arrivals? It’s because of mismanagement,” he said.