In Focus

Tourist Zone Fees: Where does the money go?

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photos phoe nyan, phyo thiha

As in many countries, tourists in Myanmar are often required to pay a fee to enter the site of a landmark or cultural or historical zone. As well as the well-known zone fee payment points at Inle Lake and Bagan, foreigners are required to pay zone fees at zones in Bago, Golden Rock, Hpa-an’s Kawgoon and Saddang caves, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin and others totaling 23 locations around the country. The fee rates vary from place to place and are paid in either Myanmar Kyat or US Dollar from foreign travelers and over time this has become an important source of foreign income for the country. However, due to weaknesses in transparency by the relevant authorities some questions are being raised by foreign travelers and stakeholders in the tourism industry: How are these zone and entrance fees managed? How are the funds spent? Do they stay in the travel sector? “When foreigners are in Myanmar, they have to pay entrance fees to visit many of the popular sites.

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The required fees are written on signage at the payment points. However, they do not know who the fees go to or where they get spent. From their point of view, they would like to know about it, and the officials here should have clarity on where the money goes,” said tour guide Ko Kyaw Zin Htaik. In 2017, Myanmar received 3.4 million foreign visitor arrivals including 2 million though its border gateways. The first six months of 2018 have seen over one million foreign visitors. Shwedagon Pagoda Of the total number of foreign travellers to the country, about 500,000 visit famous pagodas where they are required to pay entrance fees.

According to the figures published by the pagoda’s board of trustees, Myanmar’s most famous pagoda received fees totaling K5.3 billion in the period between January 2017 and May 2018. Currently, the Shwedagon receives over 1,000 fee-paying foreign visitors on a daily basis, and most of the foreign visitors are from ASEAN nations. “Most of the foreign travellers here are from Thailand, Korea and China. They come here in groups of about 20 to 30 persons. The foreign visitors from European countries usually come to the pagoda in groups of two or three,” said a security representative at the Shwedagon Pagoda. In Yangon, the current entrance fee at Sule Pagoda is K3,000, Botahtaung Pagoda is K6,000 and Kaba Aye Pagoda is K3,000. These fees have been set since 2013. However, in June 2017 the entrance fee at Shwedagon Pagoda was raised from K8,000 to K10,000 per visitor. U Htun Aung Ngwe, head of office of the pagoda’s Board of Trustees said that an entrance fee has been collected from foreigners since 1995 when it was charged at USD5 per head. This was brought in under the guidelines of the government with the purpose of increasing foreign income. By October 2013 the fee had become USD 8 per head. Regarding zone fees collected from visitors here, an official from the Board of Trustees denied issues with transparency saying that all income is used for renovations and updates to the pagoda: “We do not have a lack of transparency with respect to the zone fees. Where was this money spent? Look at the current condition of the pagoda compared to the condition before. You will see it is different. In the past, there were no escalators or lifts but now you see them as a development. Shelters for the pilgrims to rest are among them. Besides, we are doing other renovations on the religious buildings here. How else can we get the funds to do so? All the money to do it has come from such visitor fees and pilgrims’ donations,” said the official. He went on to say that the funds are also spent on printing and making guide maps, pamphlets and vinyl signs for foreign visitors as well as the installation of LED boards. The remaining cash is deposited at government-run banks under the guidelines of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. Zone Fees collected at Bagan Ancient Cultural Zone The Bagan ancient cultural zone has been receiving an increasing number of visitors almost every year. There were 241,965 visitors in the 2014-2015 fiscal year according to statistics from the local Department of Archeology and National Museums. But in 2016, due to unrest in Myanmar there were 2.9m traveller arrivals in Myanmar—1.8m down from 2015. Then in 2017, foreign arrival numbers began to increase again bringing the total up to 3.5m according to Myanmar Travel Association. This number however, slowed significantly in the second half of the year as a result of the conflict in northern Rakhine State. Despite conflict in the country, World Travel & Tourism Council’s report “Travel & Tourism: Economic Impact 2018 Myanmar” said that total contribution of travel and tourism to the country’s GDP was K2,647.2bn (USD2bn) which was 2.7 percent of the country’s total GDP in 2017. The report also stated that this is forecasted is to rise by 5.2% in 2018, and to rise by 7.0% yearly to reach K5,467bn (USD4.2bn), 2.9% of the GDP, in 2028. According to sources in the regional parliament community, it is learnt that 90 percent of the collected zone fees from Bagan are transferred directly to the government. Four of the remaining 10 percent is spent on holding international shows, keeping the Bagan area clean, maintaining the ancient pagodas and doing development work in the Bagan cultural zone. The remaining six percent of the money goes to Myanmar Tourism Federation (MTF) according to an agreement with the regional government who agreed – upon MTF’s request – to allow them permission to collect the zone fees in the Bagan. This agreement has been in place since 2016. “Presently, the regional government is carrying out renovations to the pagodas using that two percent. This amount is too small, therefore, we will ask for a higher budget in the coming year in order to preserve the Bagan pagodas,” said U Win Myint Khaing, regional parliament member of Nyaung Oo. Zone Fees at Inle Lake Zone fees at the world-famous Inle Lake in southern Shan State are currently USD10 or K13,500 per person. At this zone, a private body has been granted permission through a tender bid to collect the zone fees following guidelines from the Inle Region Development Committee. The winning tender fee for 2017-2018 – made by a private company – was over K3 billion and the private company must ensure that 45 percent of the money collected from fees is to be transferred to the Shan State government and the Inle Lake Trust Fund while six percent is to go to the staff fund. A meager two percent of the income from zone fees at Inle Lake goes to the development of the tourism industry in the area and regionally. The Inle Lake zone received over 130,000 foreign travellers over the nine months between April and December in 2017 and the revenue collected from zone fees was over K17bn.

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By Lu Thit

He was with Myanmar publications The Ladies,  the People’s Wish and TOMORROW as a journalist. He has been  writing about changes of lifestyle, urban transportation, environment, and politics in Myanmar

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