In Focus

International travelers in Myanmar still facing money exchange challenges

Photo - Phyo Thiha

There is an aspect of visiting Myanmar that continues to be the source of criticism from many foreign travelers. That is the necessity of using new, crisp and clean US dollar bills. This is a common case when foreigners change dollars into kyats; when they pay for services in dollars; and when they buy items using dollars.

Those in the tourism business comment that the brand-new-dollar excuse has been a problem they encountered since 1990 through to the current time and that the Central Bank’s actions surrounding the issue so far are unsatisfactory.

“There could be an agreeable way [to solve this] if the Central Bank would manage it.

It is not difficult however we don’t understand why they haven’t solved it yet,” Nature Dream tour company owner Daw Sabei Aung said to My Magical Myanmar.

Advanced notification is issued by some tourism companies to foreign travelers who are planning to visit Myanmar on package tours to bring brand-new dollars lest they would be in inconvenience. Moreover, independent travelers tend to have trouble with dollars due to a lack of prior information.
Inconveniences caused by banks

The dollar is the central pivot for businesses all over Myanmar where there is still no widespread use of credit cards.

Therefore, when the dollar is exchanged with kyats, when you go shopping, when you pay for air tickets and you stay in hotels and eat at restaurants, only fresh notes can be accepted and oversea travelers feel frustration at that.

Myanmar’s Central Bank issued a directive on October 17, 2012 that any old blemished foreign currencies may be accepted including the US dollar, the Euro and the Singapore dollar. The directive stated that old notes, notes marked with stamps, ink, stains or spotted notes should in fact be accepted as well as lightly-creased or folded notes and those with minor tears.

However, the tourism industry professionals and those working with foreign visitors comment that the banks and money changers have never began accepting these problematic US dollars.

Joseph Beck, an American tourist travelling independently in Myanmar, raised the point, “There are no such restrictions on dollars in Myanmar’s neighboring countries, Thailand and Cambodia. We can use them in any state. It is imposed here on foreign travelers that the US dollar bills must be brand-new whereas local kyat notes – even the old and torn – are still used.”

A veteran tour guide Zaw Win Cho said, “There is no change with [the acceptance of] dollars as of yet. It’s as usual.”

Although Myanmar’s Central Bank laid down the rules on dollar exchange, there appears inconsistency among some foreign exchange banks, said English-language tour guide Ye Aung Zaw.

Dollars at private banks and money changers
In compliance with the Foreign Exchange Management Law in effect since August 10 2012, Myanmar’s Central Bank has been issuing authorized dealer licenses and money changer licenses to banks and other companies.
In the two fiscal years, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, 95 money changer licenses were given to non-banking companies and 131 money exchange counter licenses were also extended, thus creating a total of 425 locations as of March 13, 2018.
Governor’s Office Director General and former Director General of Myanmar’s Foreign Exchange Management Department Win Thaw, explained to My Magical Myanmar:
“We have heard the problems with that. We shall take action if there is an official complaint.”
U Khin Aung Tun, Vice President of Myanmar Tourism Federation analyzed that there remain inconveniencies at present because of the lack of skills and proficiencies of the staff from local banks and money changers in buying and selling of foreign currency.

It has been over three years since Myanmar Tourism Federation discussed with the Central Bank, local banks and money changers in regard to the buying and selling of US dollars.

“The Central Bank instructed them to accept imperfect notes. However, there are no ground checks or necessary training courses,” said U Khin Aung Tun.
Veteran tour guide Zaw Win Cho explained his experiences: “When the foreigners complain and we ask some bank staff, they said they have to compensate unless the immediate superiors do not accept.”

Phu Pwint Thu, of Fame Authorized Money Changer on Anawrahta Street, Yangon, told My Magical Myanmar that they exchange dollar notes at a 500 kyat reduction if the note is old, creased or torn. If foreigners want to buy old US dollars, there is a reduced resale rate.

“We explain to people coming here for exchange as much as we can. Some do not accept it. It happens here in Myanmar only. In Thailand one dollar is just one dollar, and so they use it,” Phu Pwint Thu said.

“It would be more convenient if we could deal with money like that. In resale and air tickets, the customers are likely to have good and clean notes. It would be alright where there is no discrimination,” she said.

Myanmar’s Central Bank actions
If there is weakness in observing the staff of local banks and money changers with regards to buying and selling foreign exchange, the Central Bank personnel coordinate and educate staff members so as not to cause problems or losses, U Win Thaw explained.

It is planned that the rule breakers shall be warned and then remanded on bail and eventually action will be taken against them and their license taken from them in addition to fines imposed. It is confirmed that there are some rule-breakers who remain remanded on bail.

“If there is inconvenience, we complain to the respective personnel. If they break the rules three times, they would be investigated,” said U Win Thaw.
“There is more or less an improvement. But a lot remains to be done. We have to go on implementing internal training courses in the banks,” U Khin Aung Tun said.
Tour guide Zaw Win Cho suggested that the chairman of Myanmar Central Bank, tourism-related organizations, banks and money changers should meet face to face and discuss their inconveniences.

“It always happens without consequences from the Central Bank. I think there are differences between their words and actions. The best is to solve it face to face,” he said.

Nature Dream Tour’s Sabei Aung remarked, “We should get rid of this three-decade long delusion of banks and changers being okay with brand-new bucks. The Central Bank should re-scrutinize the currency using policies and help foreigners as well as Myanmar.”

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Aung Phay Kyi Soe is a Journalist who worked as Culture, Tourism, Environment and Health Reporter for five years at The Messenger, The Trade Times,DEMOCRACY Today, The Voice and Mawkun In-Depth and Investigative Magazine. He won the Best Feature Award for Climate Change Reporting supported by UN-Habitat and organized by Myanmar Journalism Institute.


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