YANGON — The national government has tentatively lifted tourist travel restrictions on parts of Karenni State once entirely off limits to visitors for security reasons, according to the Karenni State Directorate of Hotels and Tourism.
The government agreed to lift the restrictions earlier this month, though an official order has yet to be issued.
“Tourists were allowed to visit only Loikaw in the past. Prior permission had to be sought for visiting Demoso. Now restrictions have been lifted on some areas where tourists were completely prohibited,” directorate chief U Lin Zaw Htut told The Irrawaddy.
Tourists can now visit the villages of Panpet and Tanilale in Demoso Township and the towns of Bawlakhe, Hpasawng and Mese along a local trade route connecting Myanmar to Thailand.
Most of Karenni State was once controlled or contested by ethnic armed groups.
Foreigners were finally allowed to travel to Loikaw by the previous administration of U Thein Sein. Later on, tourists were allowed to travel to Panpet and Tanilale with prior permissions from authorities as part of efforts to boost community-based tourism.
“Tourists had to seek prior permissions from the state government to visit these places three to five days in advance. Some foreigners who wanted to visit them as soon as they arrived could not do so. So we asked authorities to lift the travel restrictions. Travel restrictions were in place in the past because the state was not peaceful” U Lin Zaw Htut said.
While domestic tourism to Karenni State has been on the rise lately, foreign visitor numbers remain low.
The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), one of Myanmar’s many ethnic armed groups, has signed ceasefire agreements with the state and union governments, but it has yet to join the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
“Security conditions in the state have improved. Although disputes arise between them [the KNPP and authorities], there has been no fighting. The KNPP has also told local residents that they would not disturb local or foreign tourists and that they could travel freely. The group said it wanted to see tourist development,” said U Thein Lwin of the Union of Myanmar Travel Associations (Karenni).
U Soe Htwe, chairman of the Hoteliers Association (Karenni Zone), said the request to lift the travel restrictions was submitted to the vice president’s office.
“The travel ban that restricted foreigners for many years was lifted after State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the state. The application for official permission was submitted on Jan. 22. The vice president will hold a meeting on the permission on Jan. 26. Official permission will be granted soon,” he said.
The association says tourists were annoyed by delays in getting the travel permits and a ban on overnight stays.
“Now tourists can visit the areas any time. They can spend the night there. Local people can entertain them with traditional dances and songs while selling their local products. Their livelihoods will improve as their income increases,” the chairman said.
Tourist arrivals in Karenni State in 2016-17, with a new NLD-led government in power, rose 65 percent year-on-year.
U Htay Aung, a veteran tour guide, expects those numbers to rise further once the KNPP signs the NCA and more parts of the state are opened up to visitors.
“Many places in the state are still restricted for foreigners. Take Htekho in Hpruso Township and Dawtamagyi in Demoso Township. Tourists like these destinations very much. The situation will improve once the KNPP has signed the NCA,” he told the Irrawaddy.
U Lin Zaw Htut said negotiations are also underway to open a border gate between the state’s Mese Township and Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province. Authorities have already made field trips to the site.
“About 3 million tourists visit Mae Hong Son every year. They will visit here when the border gate opens. It was supposed to open in Karenni State in January but only 50 tourists visited on the day of a friendship tour between the foreign ministries of the two countries. The border gate will open soon,” he said.
Karenni State hosted 16,000 local tourists in 2016 and 34,000 last year. It also hosted 6,300 foreign tourists in 2016 and 9,000 in 2017.
Translated from Burmese by Myint Win Thein.