As Domestic Tourism Reopens in Myanmar, Businesses Struggle to Get Back on Their Feet

By Nyein Nyein 30 June 2020

Domestic travel in Myanmar began to reopen this month, with tourism businesses working to revive the industry as the sector is among those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 cases in late March and the government imposed restrictions on travel, the tourism sector saw revenues plummet to zero in April and May.

In late May, state and regional tourism authorities ran health and safety checks on hotels, restaurants and transportation businesses and issued safety certificates to those that complied with standards from the Ministry of Health and Sports, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (MOHT).

Under Myanmar’s September 2018 Tourism Law, local governments can decide whether to close or open tourism in their area. The law granted state and regional governments authority over licenses for hotels, tour companies, tour guides and transportation operators.

Domestic tourists are now slowly starting to return as travel restrictions are lifted, but not in tour groups, according to Daw May Myat Mon Win, the chairwoman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing.

In the second week of June, hotels in Kalaw, a popular destination in southern Shan State, became busy again with domestic tourists.

Daw Cho Cho Lwin, owner of Kalaw Vista Bed & Breakfast, said that tourists have returned in the last three weeks—both locals and foreigners living in the country—but that the numbers amount to only about half of what they saw in previous years.

“It won’t reach the level that we had before in this new normal situation but we are hoping for unexpected local tours,” she told The Irrawaddy.

In Kalaw, 34 out of 58 hotels are back to operating as normal after Shan State health and tourism authorities permitted them to reopen with new guidelines and preventative measures.

Domestic tourists are also travelling to other destinations including Hpa-an in Karen State and Bagan. According to the MOHT, more than 800 hotels in 12 regions and states have reopened in June and other hotels are still undergoing checks for health and safety.

Daw May Myat Mon Win said that around 100 people travelled to Hpa-an per day last week and that the level of traffic is good for businesses in this period.

“We have to help each other to survive and domestic travel is so far the only way to revive the economy. The ministry [MOHT] and the private sector are working together to promote domestic travel,” said Daw May Myat Mon Win.

Under the ministry’s Tourism Relief Plan, the government has laid out three phases for the revival of the tourism industry.

First, the ministry relaxed taxes on tourism businesses for six months, waived license fees for one year from April 1 and postponed lease fees for affected state-owned hotels for six months.

Second, the government initiated the reopening of the industry by removing lockdowns and quarantines in a process that began in June and will continue through August.

Tourists kayaking in a local creek in Kalaw, southern Shan State, in December 2019. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

U Aung Aye Han, deputy director-general of MOHT’s Directorate of Hotels and Tourism, said that during this reopening, the ministry will promote tourism and invent new tourists destinations, aiming to reduce crowding in any one place and reduce the risk of spreading infection.

The last phase of the MOHT Tourism Relief Plan is known as re-launching, in which the government hopes to begin allowing foreign tourist arrivals between August and January of next year.

Under the government’s stimulus package to help the economy recover from COVID-19, it has provided one-year loans at a 1% interest rate to improve working capital of affected hotels and tourism businesses. The government has so far loaned 21 billion kyats (US$15.15 million) from its 100 billion-kyat COVID-19 fund to tourism businesses, according to U Aung Aye Han.

The ministry also plans to promote regional tourism in a “Myanmar-Mekong Travel Bubble” and facilitate travel by relaxing regulations on visas.

Myanmar had 4.36 million foreign tourists in 2019, up from 3.55 million in 2018—a 23% increase.

However, due to COVID-19, Myanmar’s foreign tourist arrivals between January and May were down to 55% of last year’s levels. From January to May 2019, 1.8 million tourists and brought in US$1.14 billion. In the same period in 2020, Myanmar had just 832,094 foreign tourists, bringing in US$523 million.

Daw Cho Cho Lwin said she doesn’t expect the country will see foreign tourists in the upcoming peak season, from October to February 2021, as commercial flights into Myanmar are still banned.

She said she remains confident that domestic travel in Myanmar will continue, if the country continues to see little local transmission of COVID-19 and if people follow the Health Ministry’s guidelines.

As of Tuesday, Myanmar has had 299 confirmed COVID-19 cases and tested 74,978 people. The country has seen six deaths from COVID-19 and 221 recoveries.

Daw Cho Cho Lwin also said the tourism market is changing: hotels are giving discounts of 25-30 percent, which could motivate domestic travelers to visit.

With tourism reopening, the government requires all staff and management in hotels and tourism businesses to follow guidelines and preventative measures, such as wearing masks, following social distancing rules, disinfecting surfaces, washing hands, checking temperatures and recording tourists’ travel information.

“The rules apply not only for staff, hotel management and owners, but also for the guests,” said Daw Cho Cho Lwin.

Daw May Myat Mon Win echoed that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, everyone must follow preventative measures as they help to boost the economy, so that Myanmar can avoid any further waves of coronavirus infection.

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