Burma to Rejoin UNWTO

By Colin Hinshelwood 15 May 2012

Burma’s President Thein Sein has announced that the country will seek to restore its membership with the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The decision was confirmed during an official visit by UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai earlier this month.

“Tourism is a major sector of the economy not only for Myanmar but also for all countries around the world,” said Thein Sein. “It brings benefits to a country, boosts its economy, and create employment opportunities. We therefore request that our membership of UNWTO be restored so that we can obtain the relevant knowledge to further promote and develop our tourism sector.”

According to the UNWTO website, Rifai assured the Burmese president that the UNWTO stood ready to support Burma in taking full advantage of its “tremendous tourism potential.”

“Myanmar is a country abundant in natural and cultural resources, the foundation of any tourism sector,” said the UNWTO secretary-general. “Following talks with the Minister of Hotels, Tourism and Sport, U Tint San, UNWTO will lend its expertise in a number of areas, ranging from capacity-building to sustainable tourism practices and travel facilitation, to responsibly develop tourism for the benefit of all.”

The UNWTO said that Rifai presented the Burmese president with an open letter from both the UNWTO and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) on the importance of tourism to global growth and development. Accepting the letter, Thein Sein stated that “tourism should be considered a smokeless industry” and one that “boosts growth, creates job opportunities, conserves the environment and helps to maintain traditional arts and crafts.”

The UNWTO has focused greatly in recent years on increasing tourism in Southeast Asia and Central Asia. It initiated the “Phuket Action Plan” in 2005, encouraging investment and inter-governmental cooperation during efforts to recover the tourism industry following the devastation of a tsunami in the Indian Ocean the year before.

Last year the UNWTO unveiled an initiative to protect culture and secure tourism investment on the Silk Road—Asia’s historical trading highway with the Middle East and Europe.

The organization’s prerogative in promoting sustainable, responsible tourism and eco-tourism will resonate with many environmentalists and investors who have called on Naypyidaw to avoid the commercial pitfalls that have scarred resorts and tourist centers in neighboring Thailand, including uncontrolled sex tours.

Burma’s move to rejoin the UNWTO comes at a time when the country has been tipped by many influential international agents as a popular tourism destination over the coming years. Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure magazine, Lonely Planet and CNN are among the media that recommended Burma as an “in” destination for 2012.

Tours to Burma from Thailand and China have increased exponentially in previous years and are likewise expected to continue their upward spiral.

Many observers have warned, however, that Burma’s infrastructure is lacking and that the country cannot cope with such a demand. Ohn Myint, Rangoon’s deputy director of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, said, “We have estimates that in 2012, we can receive 500,000 tourists through Yangon International Airport. In 2015, we will expect over 1 million tourist arrivals to Myanmar.”

However, the entire country currently boasts just 25,000 hotel rooms—of which only 8,000 are suitable for tourists, according to tourism authorities.

For decades, many international tour operators and conscientious travelers boycotted Burma, inspired by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, due to allegations that tourism dollars would only find their way into the pockets of the military junta and its cronies. However, Suu Kyi has softened her stance on tourism since becoming involved in the political process last year, and has called for a policy of sustainable and responsible tourism to be implemented.