Burma’s Tourism Industry Struggles to Keep Up With Surging Visitor Numbers

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 18 August 2014

RANGOON — The number of tourists coming to Burma looks set to exceed the government’s prediction of 3 million this year, but the industry is still struggling to meet visitors’ expectations, according to industry experts.

The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced last month that more than 1.6 million people visited the country in the first seven months of 2014, up from 1.1 million in the same period last year.

“I expect that the number of tourist arrivals will reach the government’s expectation of 3 million this year as 50 percent of the target has already been reached,” Phyo Wai Yar Zar, the chairman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing.

A new e-visa system is likely to boost visitor numbers even further, he said. From Sept. 1, visitors can apply for and pay for tourist visas online, avoiding lines at Burmese Embassies abroad.

“It will be much easier for the potential visitors to plan their trips to Myanmar,” Phyo Wai Yar Zar said.

Tourism has boomed since the Burmese government began political and economic reforms, and the number of visitors only topped 1 million for the first time in 2012. But the industry has struggled to keep up, and hotel rooms remain expensive due to short supply.

But as well as falling short in terms of capacity, local hotels have been criticized for providing service that doesn’t meet international standards.

“In service management, the objective is not just to maximize profits; the ultimate aim is to satisfy the customer and keep them as your patrons for as many years as possible,” Phyo Wai Yar Zar added.

Maung Maung, chairman of the World Quest International travel and tour agency, said tour operators had trouble explaining to customers that paying high room rates—often US$300 a night—does not guarantee good service in Burma.

“Three-star hotels demand five-star room rates, but they don’t offer many services,” he said, “not only in Rangoon, also in Mandalay, Inle and Bagan too.”

Maung Maung also said that this year visitor numbers were receiving a boost Burma’s chairmanship of Asean, which means hosting hundreds of meetings involving foreign delegates, as well as the recent Unesco World Heritage listing of three ancient Pyu cities.

But reaching the government’s target of 5 million visitors next year might prove difficult if the poor service and high prices are not addressed, Maung Maung said.

Jef Tupas, a Filipino journalist who visited Rangoon last year, said the options for tourists do not compare favorably with those in the Philippines.

“There is more to be done for Yangon to make it more appealing to tourists,” he said.

“Hotels are expensive and there is nothing much to see around Yangon. But I think the Burmese people are the number [one] tourist attraction. They are friendly, happy and accommodating.”