In the past few years, Myanmar witnessed a tourism surge under the new administration which was elected in 2015. In 2016, almost 2.9 million tourists visited Myanmar leading the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to make an estimation that this number would reach 3.5 million in 2017.
The tourism industry did gain momentum as estimated, reaching 2 million visitors in the first six months of 2017—20% higher than the same period in the previous year—but was negatively affected by conflicts in Rakhine State in August last year which resulted in a significant drop in the number of visitors, especially from western countries. Experts in the tourism industry therefore have warned the government to take precautions and plan out the necessary steps for the recovery of numbers in 2018.
“We learned that because of what happened in Rakhine State, the number of visitors from western countries dropped by 20% after September. I think this impact will last at least one or two years,” U Khin Aung Tun, vice-president of Myanmar Tourism Federation, told My Magical Myanmar.
However, some experts believe that the number of visitors to Myanmar in 2018 may still in fact rise higher than 2017. They note that revenue generated from tourism may decrease with a shift in the nationality of tourists.
The spending power of those visiting from the west is 50 to 70% higher than of tourists from Asia.
In 2000, accommodation prices rose to unprecedented highs. This was at least in part due to an oversupply in the hotel industry. The ratio of visitors to rooms remains vastly unbalanced.
In 2017, with the aim of boosting tourism during the rainy season, the Ministry in cooperation with hotels from the major tourist hotspots launched a nationwide Green Season Promotion, under which hotel room prices were lowered to encourage more bookings between June and September.
The room occupancy rate of hotels in Yangon is currently at 51% while the occupancy rate of hotels in smaller towns is around 20%, according to a survey conducted by Nature Dream Travel DMC (Myanmar).
In some tourist destinations, a lack of infrastructure such as electricity and water, difficulties in accessibility and expensive flight prices are major challenges to the development of tourism, according to experts.
“It is said that some domestic flight tickets are even more expensive than flying overseas. We don’t have direct routes to some areas. If we have direct flights, there will be fewer transits. We have to work on it,” said U Thet Lwin Toe, President of Myanmar Tourism Federation.
Another struggle for the tourism industry comes from ineffective IT systems. Domestic tourism companies have to rely on tourism service websites in Singapore and the US to sell tour packages and provide booking services which, as a result, cuts possibly billions of dollars of potential income from the tourism sector.
“This, in fact, should be our country’s income. But because of an undeveloped IT sector, these become a loss,” said Daw Sa Be Aung, Head of Nature Dream Travel DMC (Myanmar).
She believes the banking system in Myanmar is unsophisticated and not in line with international standards and that this affects Myanmar websites’ abilities to make and receive transactions in tourism: ‘‘We don’t have an international-standard banking system. Websites based in developed countries such as Singapore and USA are taking advantage of our country’s undeveloped IT sector and making money on that,” she said.
Moreover, as she points out, the plan to create hotel zones as in the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan is just plan of constructing buildings and does not really promote the development of tourism.
“A master plan should have contributions from actors from various levels and sectors. It should not be only for the good of one individual but for all—for the whole industry and for the sake of the image of our country,” she noted.
U Henry Van Thio, Myanmar’s Vice-President, urged stakeholders in the tourism industry at the meeting of the National Committee for Tourism on December 21 to work harder in order to maintain the momentum of growth and in order to assist the recovery of the slump in tourism.
“We need strategic plans to make tourism develop systematically and sustainably,” he said.
Moreover, he also insisted in promoting Myanmar internationally in order to attract more tourists. He suggested creating new destinations because of which tourists would want to stay longer and spend more.
“Myanmar is not well known. This is the point. Thailand, China, or Singapore, for instance, are well known. We have put ads in international media outlets in order to promote Myanmar. We are also doing digital marketing promoting events in tourism,” said U Kaung Min Khant, Secretary of Myanmar Tourism Promotion.
With the possibility of the number of tourists dropping in 2018, Myanmar is likely to rely more on Chinese tourists who generate up to $300 million every year for the global tourism industry, according to experts.
‘‘The Chinese are a class of tourists who tend to spend a lot. If one percent ($300,000) of them come into Myanmar, it would be good for us,’’ said U Thet Lwin Toe, President to Myanmar Tourism Association.
In order to boost development of Myanmar’s tourism industry, the Myanmar Tourism Association is planning to hold a conference on tourism inviting stakeholders from various levels and the relative associations.
Experts in the field want the government to make more visa-free agreements—as already in place with Thailand—with other countries in order to attract more tourists.
“When making some changes in immigration policies, you need to think of all—both the good and bad consequences. Thailand, for example, gave visa exemptions to most countries but has now revoked it. The policy needs to be revised according to the situation,” Daw Sa Be Aung said.
Actors in tourism-related businesses want the government to form an advisory board to boost tourism and avoid harming the heritage, customs and values of the country.
“I want to urge the government to form an advisory board consisting of both international and local experts which would lay out the plan for tourism development and frankly point out what is necessary while making sure the country’s culture and natural resources remain unharmed,” Daw Sa Be Aung said.
Concerning what tour companies are facing after the Rakhine conflict, U Zaw Win Cho, an experienced tour guide said, “The Rakhine conflict has had a big impact. When asking major tour companies about the forecast of the toursimmarket in January and February 2018, we learned that the number of inquiries was not as much as previous years.”