SITTWE, Arakan State—Until mid-2012, thousands of foreign tourists would visit Sittwe every year. These days, few travelers come to enjoy the Arakan state capital’s colonial heritage or its beaches. Yet, local hotels are fully booked, room rates are high and transport services are thriving.
Sittwe’s tourism industry experienced a bust following clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June 2012. The violence killed scores and pushed tens of thousands of Rohingyas into the countryside, where they languish in camps in dire conditions.
Tourist visits to the historic temples in Mrauk-U, a major tourist draw in central Arakan State, were subsequently banned by authorities and visits to Sittwe dropped off too.
Soon after however, Sittwe’s hotels began to welcome a new type of international guest: aid workers.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis in Arakan State set in motion an international aid response that now provides food and shelter to many tens of thousands of displaced people.
The operations led to an influx of UN staff, NGO workers and foreign dignitaries, all of whom are seeking temporary accommodation paid for by their organizations.
Nowadays, Sittwe’s hotels can barely keep up with demand.
“There are a lot of UN and NGO workers at our hotel, and they book long stays. Some also hired apartments in the town” said Than Shwe, who owns Shwe Thazin Hotel, one of the larger establishments in Sittwe.
“From June 2012 until now, we’ve had no tourists because of the conflict. Some tried to make bookings in our hotel, but the government cancelled these because of security problems,” he added.
Since the first UN agencies arrived in June the number of aid organizations in Sittwe has steadily risen to about 20, according to an aid worker who was among the first to be stationed there last year.
“There are many aid workers who arrive to visit Sittwe and other areas. There is a very high turnover,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named. “There are about 100 expats in Sittwe now.”
“The hotels enjoy the benefits of all these expats staying there, and the restaurants do as well,” he said, adding that frequent visits by foreign diplomats and high-ranking government officials from Naypyidaw were a boon for the high-end Royal Sittwe Resort, located on the beach front.
Tourist transport firms were benefiting too, he said, adding, “All the companies [in Sittwe] that used to transport tourists to Mrauk-U. Now they rent their vehicles to aid workers to bring them to the field.”
“We have a shortage of hotel rooms now in Sittwe, so the rates are going up more and more. This is also because some aid agencies pay high rates. Even local housing rents are going up,” he said.
Shwe Thazin Hotel now charges guests US $70 for a standard double room, twice the rate of a similar room in downtown Rangoon.
A manager at Noble Hotel in Sittwe said the aid operations had also boosted his revenues. “The NGO business is good for our hotel, they stay a long time and they hire cars and tuk-tuks,” she said. “There are also opportunities to work for the NGOs; they need translators, drivers, cleaners and so forth.”
“NGO business money reaches to the local Arakan people in Sittwe,” she added.