YANGON—While giving State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi high marks for her strategies to reform the tourism sector, tour operators point out that conditions on the ground make her suggestions hard to implement.
Speaking at a National Tourism Industry Development Central Committee meeting in Naypyitaw on Friday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi put forward more than 10 key tourism-promotion strategies, from extending the railways, promoting community-based tourism and building small, livable hotels and hostels, to planning new destinations and natural adventure tours.
Myanmar has a rich natural environment and remains one of the last remaining countries in Southeast Asia with undiscovered tourist destinations. From January to June, the country received about 1.8 million visitors, a drop of roughly 38,000 compared with last year. The government targets 7 million annual tourist arrivals by 2020. By comparison, neighboring Thailand received 35.38 million tourists in 2017, equivalent to more than half its population.
“We must have new, innovative ideas if we want to attract more tourists,” the State Counselor said.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she was aware that neighboring countries Thailand, Cambodia and Laos were already several steps ahead of Myanmar in terms of developing their tourism sectors.
“If we can modernize our transportation system, we could attract more tourists,” she said.
She suggested that rather than investing more in airport facilities, investors should consider developing the nation’s railways and waterways, which offer tourists more convenient ways to travel.
Most tourists enter Myanmar by airplane, but to get around inside the country, they normally choose other modes of transport such as bus and rail. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that personally, she preferred traveling by train, as it allowed travelers to take in the scenery and afforded them many opportunities to learn the local culture, such as by buying local food and souvenirs whenever the train stopped at stations along the route.
“I want the transportation sector to consider extending the railways to attract more tourists,” she said, adding that rail travel could be enhanced by selling local products and souvenirs at train stations.
Turning the State Counselor’s words into action is made difficult by the fact that Myanmar’s railway network is one of the most outdated in Asia. With the exception of the Yangon-Mandalay route, levels of rail infrastructure quality, train cleanliness and passenger comfort are all relatively low. In particular, bathrooms are basic and the ride itself is rarely smooth. Additionally, some sections of the network become impassable during the monsoon season.
Freight trains, for example, travel at an average speed of 40 kilometers an hour. The trip from Yangon to Mandalay takes 14 hours, versus three hours for a trip of the same distance in neighboring countries.
The further one gets from Yangon, the less predictable the rail system becomes, particularly in terms of arrival and departure times.
Operators agree most tourists would be interested in taking a train to Shan State, but few towns offer daily rail connections. Some routes are plagued by cancellations and standards of cleanliness that are inadequate for tourist services.
“The train system is poor in many tourist destinations. Normally, train schedules are unpredictable. Levels of trust have declined. Tourists don’t have time to waste, and won’t choose train travel,” said U Nyunt Win Naing, chairman of the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute.
“We need to increase the train speeds. Our trains are really slow. It is a waste of time for tourists. Also, train tickets can’t be purchased with visa or other credit cards, and we need a website that can display train schedules and specific routes for tourists,” U Nyunt Win Naing said.
Community-based tourism involving adventure tours such as trekking and river trips is one of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategies to support local community development. She also wants to find new destinations and unexplored tour spots. She warned the tourism industry, however, to create an environmentally sustainable plan that preserves the country’s natural surroundings and keeps them free of trash. She urged people to learn from other countries’ examples.
The State Counselor also suggested creating special elephant-care camps that could be visited by tourists, and recommended the creation of tours for observing wild animals such as Irrawaddy dolphins. Her strategy for tourist accommodation is to promote small businesses that operate small, “livable” hotels and hostels that prioritize cleanliness and hygiene to guarantee tourists’ health.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also said tourists are keen to try street food. She cited the example of Thailand’s roadside food vendors, who are famous for safe, delicious food prepared in hygienic conditions. She urged the tourism sector to consider promoting roadside vendors offering food at reasonable prices. The idea is in line with her strategy of promoting small enterprises in local areas.
Currently, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism is promoting community-based tourism in 15 places in Shan, Kachin, Kayah and Chin states, and Magway, Tanintharyi, Yangon and Mandalay regions. These include traditional activities and cultural tours.
However, tour operators on the ground say they face many challenges such as the difficulty of obtaining loans from banks, expensive license fees and weak enforcement of laws against illegal tours.
“We are more expensive than Thailand, though we offer inferior services. We must have a company license, even a car license, if we run CBT. But many people are doing business without licenses; there is no law enforcement for that,” said U Nay Moe Aung, managing director of 9 Generation Force Travels and Tours and secretary of Kayah Zone Travel based in Loikaw, Kayah State.
Illegal tour operators are able to offer cut-rate prices because they don’t pay license fees and other expenses such as staff salaries. Unable to attract as many customers, legal operators find it hard to survive, he said.
Despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s eagerness to promote small enterprises in local areas, operators in local ethnic areas said it was hard to get bank loans to develop travel attractions and tours.
The government recognizes Kayah State as a CBT area. It has become a destination for tourists looking to explore caves in eastern Myanmar next to Shan State. Local operators say that if the government can operate a well-run rail service from Shan to Kayah, the majority of tourists will choose to travel by train in those areas.
“The train doesn’t run daily in Loikaw. If we can run daily, both locals and foreigners will take the train,” U Nay Moe Aung said.
Local operators have urged the government to establish a daily train service in Loikaw, but the idea was rejected due to a lack of travelers.
“They should take the risk if they want long-term benefits,” U Nay Moe Aung said.
Local CBT operators said the Hotels and Tourism Ministry had been working with regional officials to improve the local tourism infrastructure. However, regional authorities did not listen to advice from operators, they said.
Recently, the ministry launched the first overland trip from Kayah State to Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and discussed opening a direct border crossing between Kayah and Thailand. But there is hesitation on the Thai side, as Myanmar has not suggested specific potential new destinations that would attract tourists to Kayah State.
“When we met with officials from both sides, local tour operators wanted to present lists of attractive destinations in Kayah State. But the regional government did not allow it, and they rejected it. So, the Thais think we don’t have many places to visit; that’s one reason for their hesitation on the border gate opening,” said U Maung Maung Kyaw, director of Myanmar Land Travel based in Yangon.
“We also need to figure out why we are more expensive than other countries,” U Maung Maung Kyaw said.
According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, there are 1,676 hotels and 67,350 rooms across the country for tourists, but the industry’s income has fallen since the humanitarian crisis erupted in northern Rakhine State in August last year. Overall visitor numbers from the U.S., Canada, the Middle East and Europe have declined significantly in 2018 because the country’s image has been tarnished in the eyes of many Western and European travelers.
But the tourism industry expects more tourists from Asia, provided the country implements realistic policies.
Daw Aung Suu Kyi’s key strategies received praise from the industry, but operators cautioned that a continued lack of stability in the country and some unrealistic policies kept them from achieving her goals.
Recently, the Hotels and Tourism Ministry announced that citizens of Japan, South Korea and China will be able to request visas on arrival in Myanmar provided they show 1,000 USD in cash at the airport.
U Myint Htwe, deputy director of the ministry, told The Irrawaddy that the ministry was trying to attract more tourists from those countries. However, criticisms were raised among operators that the requirement to show such a large amount of cash was not realistic, as few tourists carry so much cash while traveling. They said it was an outdated policy that would ultimately discourage visitors.
The ministry later announced it was suspending the requirement.
“We should have a chance to sit down together with officials. They need to listen to our challenges and advice from the ground. Otherwise, they will never know why the tourist numbers are declining,” U Nay Moe Aung said.