Can tourism in post-election Myanmar flourish?

A sunset at Bagan, Myanmar. Picture: PA
A sunset at Bagan, Myanmar. Picture: PA
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THE recent general election in Myanmar was a landmark in the Southeast Asian country’s history. But what impact will a new democratic government have on the rapidly growing tourist sector? Tim Madge reports

The changes signalled by the big pro-democracy win by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) will have raised many hopes in the existing tourism industry in Myanmar, as well as among foreign tour operators. Tourism has been expanding in the country over the past four years, with even the present government encouraging visitors, who provide much-needed hard currency.

This year the Ministry of Tourism is predicting as many as 4.5 million tourist arrivals, up from 2.14 million in 2013 and 3.8 million in 2014, a quintupling of numbers from just five years ago. But nearly three quarters of them were from other Asian countries, mostly Thailand, followed by China, Japan and South Korea. European visitors accounted for most of the rest, led by the UK, then France and Germany.

The European figures are pitifully small, given the wealth of historic and cultural heritage the country has to offer. The Ministry reports that there are currently only 47 direct foreign invested hotel projects for the entire country, and fewer than 10,000 hotel beds.

The fag end of the present regime seems not to have grasped the possibilities of rapid and sustained expansion of tourism. Speaking recently, Professor Aung Tun Thet, presidential economic adviser and vice chairman of the National Economic and Social Advisory Council, said “Don’t look at Myanmar as a small country. Instead, consider Myanmar as a regional hub.”

While urging investors to look beyond the domestic market with some 50 million people, he emphasised the regional market of more than 600 million people, rather than the global. More disappointingly, he suggested foreign investment would most likely concentrate on finance, markets, technology and management. He did not mention tourism.

On the other hand, even before the election, some major tourism players have signalled optimism. In October last year, Hilton signed management agreements with Eden Group for five hotels and resorts, and two are already open, the first in the country.

At the same time, fears have already been expressed that, if too many hurdles to travel to and within Myanmar are kicked over, mass tourism might develop too quickly along the lines of neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. High-end tourism, where Myanmar is already positioned not least because of past restrictions, is thought by many to be a better option, but controlling its development will be critical, and the new government may well be faced with pressure just to give way and let mass tourism rip.