YANGON—As an initial phase of implementing its new tourism strategy, the tourism ministry launched a free-visa system for tourists from Japan, South Korean and China’s Hong Kong and Macau on Monday. The move is likely to be followed in the coming years by the lifting of visa requirements for citizens of another 21 countries—especially western countries—in an effort to counter the fall in tourist arrivals to the country since the 2017 Rohingya crisis.
Last year, the Myanmar army conducted months-long clearance operations in northern Rakhine State, a response to the Aug. 25 coordinated attacks perpetrated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which caused 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations Fact-Finding Mission since declared that the mass devastation was committed with “genocidal intent” and urged for the army leaders to be referred to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
As a consequence of the resulting boycott campaigns, Myanmar received 1.8 million visitors between January and June this year—a drop of roughly 38,000 tourists from the same period last year. Combined with an underdeveloped infrastructure system and a lack of proper guidance for tourist destination development, as well as visa restrictions, a majority of rooms in more than 16,000 hotels were empty for months.
To raise the number of foreign traveler arrivals, the tourism industry is targeting Asian tourists rather than westerners by offering these visa exemptions, as well as introducing a simplified visa-on-arrival process for mainland Chinese visitors to Myanmar. Most of the aforementioned nations also feature in the top-ten list of international investors in Myanmar. On Monday, a welcoming ceremony for the first visitors under the new scheme was held by members of the tourism ministry at Yangon International Airport. Ambassadors from the Japanese and South Korean embassies and officials from the Chinese embassy in Yangon also joined the event.
Yesterday alone, about 400 tourists from Japan, South Korea and China entered Myanmar. Tourists from South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau can now fly into Myanmar without filling any kind of online application form or going to the Myanmar embassies in their countries. They can now apply for tourist visas at the airport. However, visitors from mainland China have not yet been included in the exemption list.
Tourist visa fees for citizens from all other Asian countries are $50 per person and allow a stay of a maximum one month. Tourists who enter Myanmar on any type of visa are not allowed to over stay. This promotion period will last for one year, concluding next year on Sept. 30. Deputy director in the ministry of tourism U Myint Htwe who attended the welcoming ceremony on Monday told reporters that Myanmar’s government expected to see an influx of Chinese tourists as approximately 125 million Chinese make trips around the world each year.
The relaxing of visa stipulations for visitors from western countries has been lobbied by the Myanmar Tourism Federation (MTF) to the National League for Democracy (NLD) government since early this year. MTF’s vice chairman U Khin Aung Tun told The Irrawaddy that included those from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, UK and US, Russia and India as well as a few Scandinavian countries. He said that as Myanmar is one of the least developed countries in the world, the government could not spend much money on digital advertisements on international broadcasting channels and so opted to offer this free visa system instead.
Daw Sabe Aung, managing director of Nature Dream Travels & Tours, pointed out that the government should have added Russia and India to the current visa-on-arrival list too, as Russia already has strong connections with Myanmar. Although Myanmar has adopted this new visa scheme, tourist arrival numbers are not likely meet last year’s number.
“Tourists travel schedules don’t just form within weeks; they normally plan a trip about six months in advance. It’s too late to recover the numbers for the 2018-19 fiscal year.”
U Khin Aung Tun said that his association has urged the government to shift visa application barriers for the aforementioned 21 countries starting from early 2019 and the new approach is under consideration at the Union government.
The government aims for 7 million annual tourist arrivals by 2020 but travel agencies speculate that this figure is very unlikely to be reached in such a short timeframe.