Rangoon — The government expects the number of tourists who come to Burma this year to reach 5 million, but some industry observers doubt that this figure will be met, and that it might be based on misleading numbers.
Earlier this year Minister of Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung estimated tourist arrivals for this calendar year to fall between 4.5 and 5 million.
Since Burma’s transition to a quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein, tourism arrivals have already risen sharply according to the government figures, which show that numbers climbed from 800,000 in 2011 to 3.08 million in 2014.
As of late August this year, Burma had already received nearly 3 million foreign visitors, according to the ministry, and numbers are likely to rise again once monsoon season ends in mid-October.
“We have already received around 3 million foreign travelers this year, and with four months still remaining, we expect to draw at least 4.5 to 5 million more,” said tourism ministry director Khin Than Win.
The majority of foreign travelers come into Burma through two major Thai borders. Of the 3 million foreign visitors last year, more than 1.9 million of them came across the border. Between January and late August of this year, the number of tourist arrivals via airports reached less than one million, while the number of border entries reached almost 2 million.
Thai visitors comprised 71.39 percent of total foreign visitors to Burma last year, followed, respectively, by visitors from EU countries and from the US and Canada.
However, doubt has been cast on these estimates, as it is difficult to pin down the number of border tourist arrivals. Maung Maung, chairman of World Quest International, a travel and tour agency, said that he is doubtful about the figures that have been released by the government.
“It’s hard to calculate the figures for border entries. They might be wrong. Figures for airports and seaports, however, are exact, and we can count those,” he said.
Tachileik in Shan State and Myawaddy in Karen State are the two border points that, since the new government came to power in 2011 and eased border restrictions, have allowed tourists easy land access to Burma.
“I don’t see anything supporting the estimate that we’ll receive 5 million tourists this year, as package tours have been falling,” Maung Maung added, remarking that his colleagues have told him that Bagan, a major tourist destination, has been confronted with similar tourist challenges in the past year.
“Government figures have been rising, but what we’re actually seeing is an increase in the number of backpackers, who don’t bring in as much money as package tours do,” he said.
Phyo Wai Yar Zar, chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing board, expressed similar sentiments, saying that “while it’s good that FIT [free independent traveler] figures are higher, we should also improve our numbers for package and leisure tours.”
The slowdown in Burma’s tourism growth can also be attributed to several other factors, including a dearth in the number of quality hotels and guesthouses, expensive room rates, weak infrastructures for transportation and communication, an underdeveloped air industry with a poor safety record, and less spending power for, in particular, European travelers in light of a strong US dollar exchange rate.
Aung Myat Kyaw, former chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, echoed other industry observers’ skepticism to The Irrawaddy last month.
“Five million is very ambitious. By the end of July [from January], we received around two million foreign travelers. It is possible that we can get close to our target of five million, probably around four million, because the number will only increase from now on. But we will still try to reach our target,” he said.
A partial remedy to Burma’s tourism woes might lie in generating better promotion efforts. Phyo Wai Yar Zar said that a tourism show, which is part of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing board’s tourism promotion program, will be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Nov. 20, with the aim of inviting tourism agents and agencies to Burma.
“We need more tourism promotion to attract more travelers to Burma,” he said.
The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism estimates that revenue has increased from US$534 million in 2012 to $1.78 billion in 2014. Projects to increase tourism are also in the works.
“Thirty-three of 47 projects by foreign investors have been completed so far. There are more than 5,900 [hotel] rooms in service now,” said Khin Than Win, with other projects still underway.