YANGON — Local tour operators say they expect foreign arrivals to decline this year with vacationers in Western countries canceling their bookings following the unrest in northern Rakhine State.
“Some canceled their bookings after the Rakhine issue arose last September. Bookings are usually made one year in advance, and there has been criticism [over the Rakhine issue] from western Europe,” U Thet Lwin Toe, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, told The Irrawaddy.
“Because of its impact, the number of visitors from western countries is likely to decline by 20 to 30 percent,” he added.
On the other hand, tourist arrivals from Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and China have been on the rise, with China alone accounting for almost 70 percent of Asian travelers to Myanmar, U Thet Lwin Toe said.
Visitor arrivals in Myanmar in 2017 increased 22 percent year on year, with arrivals through airports and seaports specifically rising 7 percent, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
U Htet Tun Aung, however, information officer for the Myanmar Tour Guides Association (Bagan), said total arrivals paint an overly rosy picture because they include overland entries through border gates.
“The figures released by the Hotels and Tourism Ministry are high because it counts visitors who enter through border gates. According to my experience and records, the number of foreign travelers has declined since 2016,” he said.
“Some foreigners entered the country through border checkpoints for business and stayed only for a day. Figures that include such visitors are not a reliable indicator,” he added.
“This month I have only been hired by two visitors, and both of them are from Asian countries. Tourist arrivals from Western countries have significantly declined.”
Myanmar’s tourism industry started to develop after the country began opening up in 2011. Tourist arrivals increased steadily and in 2015 hit a record high five million visitors.
But U Thet Lwin Toe said numbers have since dipped.
“Smaller tour operators have been struggling and some have closed their businesses. Only bigger operators are doing well,” he said. “This goes against the all-inclusive tourism adopted by the Hotels and Tourism Ministry; policymakers have to adjust it.”
“The Rakhine issue has had an impact on Yangon’s tourism industry. Misleading international reports have had a strong impact on the country’s tourism industry,” Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein said during the vice-president’s regular meeting with businesspeople in Yangon on May 11.
The World Bank’s latest economic outlook for Myanmar, released last week, said lower tourist arrivals resulting from the ongoing Rakhine crisis could weaken tourism spending and demand for related services such as hospitality and transport, leading to a broader economic slowdown of the economy.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since late August, when militant Rohingya attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine State triggered a sweeping military response rife with reports of arson, rape and murder by security forces. The military and government have denied any widespread abuse.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.