PHNOM PENH (eTN) – Myanmar has long been considered as a pariah state due to its harsh military government and its poor record on human rights. For years, most countries called to boycott Myanmar, and this was reflected by tourism figures. While other ASEAN countries prospered and enjoyed healthy growth in tourist arrivals, Myanmar continued to stagnate. Total arrivals reached over 792,000 in 2010, up from 657,000 in 2004 – when including cross-border tourism – representing a growth of 20.5% over this period. When looking at foreign arrivals at international airports, they grew from 2004 to 2010 from 242,000 to 311,000, a plus of 28.5%. Some would probably say that Myanmar did not do that bad. During the same period of time, arrivals to neighboring Laos more than doubled from less than 900,000 to an estimated 2.4 million last year. In Cambodia, total arrivals grew by 137% during the same period, from 1.06 to 2.51 million air travelers.
With the transfer of power from military to civilians and the release of one of Asia’s most famous political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s negative image in public opinion started to change for the better. “We are talking again with international institutions such as UNWTO, Asian Development Bank (ADB), as well as with the Mekong Tourism Office to help us to better manage our tourism capacity and especially raise the level of education for our working force,” explained Htay Aung, Director General, Directorate of Hotels and Tourism, during an ATF press conference.
Myanmar is ready to cooperate more with its neighbors. A new international border checkpoint is due to open with Laos. Suraphon Svetasreni, the Governor of TAT, highlighted the willingness of Thailand tourism authorities to revive partnership with Myanmar. “Our previous campaigns with Myanmar have been watered down over the years due to a chaotic perception on who was in charge of implementing projects. But the time is certainly right to revive common promotion,” he admitted.
The move into a more opened Myanmar starts to translate into the air capacity on offer. Myanmar Airways International (MAI), Thai Airways, and Thai AirAsia recently increased their capacities on the Bangkok-Yangon route, while Vietnam Airlines inaugurated a four-weekly service this winter from Ho Chi Minh City to Yangon. Regional Burmese carrier, Air Bagan, reopened the Yangon-Chiang Mai route, while MAI will inaugurate two weekly frequencies in February to Siem Reap and plans flights to Kunming, Jakarta, and Macau. In Myanmar’s new capital, Nay Pi Taw, a new international airport is due to to be completed by the beginning of 2013 at the latest, as the city will welcome the Southeast Asian Games during the same year.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, five new hotels are under construction, adding some 1,415 rooms to the 23,435 rooms already available in the 691 accommodation facilities recorded across the country. Hotels’ largest investors are mainly originated from Singapore, Thailand, and Japan. Yangon but also Ngapali beach near the Thai border, Inke Lake, and Nay Pi Taw are the main beneficiaries of hotel investments.
For Htay Aung, the government is looking more favorably at opening up its doors. Last year, Myanmar decided to granted visa-on-arrivals from June. The experience lasted only four months as the government again suspended the facility in November due to the coming elections. “The experience was, however, positive. From an average of 80 international arrivals per day in June, we moved to 400/500 arrivals in July/August to reach then an average of 1,000 foreign entries by October,” said Mr. Aung. Asked about a possible revival of the visa-on-arrival service, the Director General is rather optimistic. “Once our new parliament will start its work at the end of January, we could move quickly forward. Visa-on-arrials should definitely be back during this year!” he predicted.