RANGOON — The backpacker, a unique variety of traveler associated with intrepid, low-cost wandering, is fast becoming a cardinal feature of Burma’s tourist scene, according to industry experts.
The Union of Myanmar Travel Association (UMTA), a private-sector bloc established in 2002, told The Irrawaddy that the industry might benefit from catering to foreign independent travelers (known as FIT) instead of expensive and rigidly scheduled group tours, which were among the only options for visitors during the last two decades.
The reforms of the past three years breathed new life into a stagnating travel sector that suffered from a boycott, a shortage of investment and inadequate infrastructure. The UMTA said that the number of visitors has steadily risen, and the number of young, independent travelers is rising fast.
“Most of the visitors are from Thailand and the United States,” said Aung Zaw Win, a department head with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, remarking that backpackers now account for more than half of Burma’s tourists, a sudden and extreme increase.
While this year’s tourism statistics have not yet been published, data available on the ministry website estimated that FIT accounted for about 38 percent of visitors in 2013. Paradoxically, despite the increase, percentages were higher before the reforms because there were far fewer visitors on the whole. An influx of both foreign business scouts and exiles returning on various types of visas make the data tricky to interpret.
Nonetheless, industry experts seem to agree that FIT are, in fact, on the rise in Burma—and could prove to be a strong source of revenue and driver of development. Andrea Valentin, founder and Director of the Rangoon-based NGO Tourism Transparency, said that catering to low-budget independent travelers could create a more healthy mix in sector development by balancing out the ministry’s “misplaced” focus on high-end tourism. She warned, however, that a lot is still lacking to turn independent travel into a rewarding investment instead of a damaging experiment.
“Many package tourists know a lot about the country they’re visiting, they’re usually older, too,” said Valentin, “and they spend a lot, but the money usually stays in big hotels. We need a good mix of tourists in Myanmar, and I hope both backpackers and package tourists will be more aware of the places they visit. It’s the only way for responsible tourism to happen here.”
Local tour operators shared concerns that courting backpackers could be damaging. Tour guide Aye Nyein Thu, wary of independent travelers, lamented that “some backpackers climb up to the top of pagodas without taking off their shoes,” a cultural faux pas.
Though the number of such travelers is rising quickly, Valentin said that, “independent tourism is still not so easy in Myanmar [Burma], as there are few guesthouses and small-scale accommodation providers.”
If Burma’s tourism association does want to pursue FIT as a primary target, accommodation and safety will be among the sector’s most urgent concerns, according to Tin Tun Aung of the UMTA, pointing out that, at present, independent travelers “can only rely on hotlines and tourist police.”
The total number of visitors to Burma surpassed 1 million for the first time in 2012, shortly after power was transferred from the former military junta to a quasi-civilian government. Many travelers boycotted Burma at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi, in order to avoid funding the then-ruling regime.
Suu Kyi has since been elected to Parliament, and softened her stance toward the government, which is comprised largely of retired military officers.
In 2012, the government created a Tourism Master Plan in collaboration with foreign development experts, setting a goal of reaching 3 million foreign visitors by 2015 and 7.5 million by 2020.
In early October, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced that 2016 would be designated as “Visit Myanmar Year,” in an attempt to revamp the tourism sector amid chronic complaints of accommodation shortages and weak infrastructure for communications and transit. A similar campaign was launched in 1996.