Myanmar’s tourism industry has experienced a significant decline compared to previous years. To understand the causes for this development the Global New Light of Myanmar interviewed U Thet Lwin Toe, chairman of Myanmar Tourism Entrepreneurs Association.
By May Thet Hnin
Q: May I know current situation of tourism industry?
The country’s tourism sector rose in 2012 like a tsunami. However, the sector returned to normal in 2013 because of a lack of human resources and tourism infrastructure. In 2014 and 2015, the country saw a slight increase in the sector. According to the Hotels and Tourism Ministry, the sector declined 38 per cent in financial year 2015-2016. The tourism sector this year increased 25 per cent over the same period last year, according to half year statistics of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and the Department of Immigration. We need to monitor further development of the tourism market in high season.
Q: Do you think visitor arrivals will reach the ministry’s target of 3.5 million this year?
The country hosted about three million visitors last year. It is estimated that visitor arrivals are likely to reach the ministry’s target of 3.5 million this year as the country has developed transport infrastructure, lodging facilities, human resources and tourist security at some destinations. Hotel fees have also decreased from their peak prices.
Q. Where do most of the visitors come from?
Among western visitors, most come from the U.S., followed by France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Some Russians also visit the country. In Asia, Thai visitors are ranked first among the top list of international visitors in Myanmar, followed by China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.
Q. May I know demand and supply of tourism industry in the current time?
For the time being, there is excess supply in the tourism industry. The country has 60,000 hotel rooms, more than 5,000 tour guides and 2,300 tour companies. In transport sector, there are 10 domestic airlines in Myanmar with only 30 aircrafts. In Thailand, there are only six domestic airlines with 500 aircrafts. We need to revise the current circumstance to fill the actual requirement of the sector.
Q. What sectors need to develop to increase tourism demand?
In order to get a healthy demand, the sector needs monetary supports as well as infrastructure development. The government plays a vital role in attracting investment for the sector.
Q. May I know the main reason for this decline in tourism sector?
Negative publicity and the weak tourism security strongly impact the tourism development in our country, which is facing conflicts in Kachin area and problems in Rakhine State. But the commercial capital of Yangon with its many historic landmarks is safer than New York City over the past 20 years. Now, it is hard to walk alone on that city’s streets. Our neighbor, Thailand, also faces greater security risks, even in downtown areas, but tourism is fine because of positive publicity. In our country, it is not easy to get public support for tourism development.
Q. Can you please point out the need of the tourism sector and give advice on developing it?
Tourism has no boundaries. The country will face big challenges as we merging with the ASEAN Economic Community after 2017 and establish a single market with free movement of skilled labour, capital and investment. So as to develop the tourism service business, the government needs to reduce some restrictions that do not harm the national interest.
Q. Can you please elaborate?
For example, the Myanmar Investment Commission, the government-appointed body, reformed last year without including people working in the tourism sector. From my point of view, people in tourism sector should participate in the MIC to help develop the sector as tourism directly contributes to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the past, the former minister for the Hotels and Tourism Ministry served as a vice-chairman of the MIC. At the present time, there is no high-ranking officer of the ministry in the new body. According to the MIC, the investment in the hotel development sector has reached nearly US$3 billion. We also need to systematically manage and maintain the country’s tourism destinations to increase the country’s foreign exchange.
Q. Please comment on the government’s efforts to improve the sector.
The government should extent the collaboration with private sector for further development. The Hotels and Tourism Ministry is working to promote the sector with limitations, including budget, human resources and infrastructure. Meanwhile the private sector is doing well with full capacity and budgets. The close cooperation between the two sectors ensures the development of the industry. The government should consider actual conditions at ground level. The authorities need to understand and recognize both positive and negative comments on existing policies from the public for the purpose of moving forward. For example, it’s as if we were bulls carrying a big broken bullock cart that sinks deeper into the mud. If industry is like the bull, the government must be like the cart – ready to move. We assume that we are bulls and will put more effort to pull out the cart from the mire. But, cooperation is needed to move forward.
Q. Please measure the role of ecotourism in the current time.
Our country is rich with beautiful landscapes, including rivers, lakes, beaches, islands and forests. These are a gift from nature. Sustainable management of the natural environment is necessary to develop ecotourism in resource-rich areas. At the present time, the country sees a small number of foreign visitors entering the country for ecotourism, responsible travel to natural areas. They only enjoy vacation if it is environmentally friendly. They don’t want to visit zoological gardens because they only wish to enjoy wildlife protected by an ecotourism plan. Development works destroy natural setting. Negotiations are needed between experts on ecotourism and local communities to establish checks and balances between the urban development and environmental conservation. Promotion of ecotourism awareness is crucial to successfully develop the plan. Introducing the nature and benefits of the new ideas to local communities is important.
Q. What is needed to implement “green season” during monsoon?
Low season fares have been developed for the past two decades, with 50 per cent discounts for air tickets, hotel fees, restaurants and tour guide fees directly benefiting visitors who enjoy their time, pay reduced expenses and stay an average of at least two weeks in the country. High travel costs and poor service will fail to attract international visitors as they have many options in Asia for new travel experiences. Normally, non-Asian visitors with no travel experience in Asia, first goes to Thailand, Malaysia and Viet Nam, which are known to be more affordable than Myanmar. Myanmar is known as the land of the Lady, and this attracts foreign travellers to visit the country. Foreign visitors are interested in visiting countries with impressive landscapes and charming people. Those who have travel experience in Myanmar spread the good news in their communities, including positive reviews about tourism safety and security and about our charming people. In my opinion, some people need to change their mindsets to maintain our traditions, which make us so attractive to tourists.
(Translated by Khaing Thandar Lwin, Edited by Solomon Moore)