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Myanmar tourism enters a new era

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Nov 27, 2011

YANGON/BAGAN, Myanmar (eTN) - Experts have long predicted that Myanmar (ex Burma) would one day open up and turn into Southeast Asia’s hottest destinations. The prediction failed to materialize for many years due to the country’s political image. But since the transfer of power from the military to the first civil government, following elections in November 2010, positive signs have multiplied about a real will to open the country to the rest of the world.

The State Peace Development Council (SPDC), which ruled the country for over two decades, was officially dissolved. In February 2011, a civil government took over with ex-General Thein Sein sworn in as President of the renamed “Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” along with the two Vice Presidents. The secretive Senior General Than Shwe (78 years old) also stepped aside and is now officially retired.

These are more than just cosmetic changes. In the streets of Yangon, the economic capital, there is some freedom in the air. “We can today discuss politics and criticize the government. This would have been impossible before. We hope that it will last,” said a group of young students who are learning English in a crumbling old colonial building in Central Yangon.

Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi can be seen on posters all over the city. More encouraging, official newspapers report regularly about the leader of the National League for Democracy. Changes are also in the air in people’s daily lives. First, ATMs are now available in Yangon and Mandalay – although only for locals - and licenses have been provided to private change companies, while the government has just allowed the import of new cars and busses for the public network.

All those signs clearly indicate that Myanmar’s government is now keen to open up its economy and become a more democratic society. This is a historical u-turn, which is certainly motivated by the fact that the country has been left behind, while other countries in Asia embraced modernity and wealth. The military - who ruled the country for over half a century - acknowledge that attracting investors and modernizing infrastructures will not happen without the necessary political move.

In return, the world has started to recognize Myanmar’s efforts. First steps are being made to lift up its status of banned nation. “ Hillary Clinton will come to visit Myanmar on December 1 and 2, a historic moment for Myanmar. This would have been unconceivable a few months ago,” described Gerard Delmonte, General Manager of the Strand Hotel, the only five-star historical hotel in Yangon. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also officially approved the Myanmar chairmanship of the grouping in 2014 - a first also for the association. ASEAN handed over the Diplomatic Prize to the country during the recent Bali summit. Another important event will also take place in 2013 when Myanmar will host the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games).

Political and economic reforms will de facto create a new impetus in the tourism sector. The boycott of the destination – in place for many decades - is fading away with tourists now keen to visit one of Southeast Asian tourism’s last frontiers. In 2010, Myanmar welcomed 792,000 travelers, including 297,000 visiting Yangon. This year, this number should reach between 870,000 and 900,000.

“It is certain that the country could reach rapidly the million travelers. Issues, however, need to be rapidly resolved such as insufficient hotel capacities or visa facilitation. Yangon could turn into a great short-stay destination for Asian and expatriates, if visa procedures are simplified,” indicated Mr. Delmonte. The Minister of Hotels and Tourism is very much aware of the necessity to open up the country. “We will otherwise be left behind the Greater Mekong Subregion development,” recognized Htay Aung, Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.

It is the right time then for the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office – which groups the six countries from the Greater Mekong Subregion - to organize in partnership with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism the first international travel trade event in Myanmar. As Myanmar opens up its doors to foreign travelers, some 100 participants, including many international experts, will gather in the old historical city of Bagan on November 27 to discuss sustainable tourism. Bagan is a spectacular venue: it is one of Asia’s most amazing archeological sites with over 2,500 stupas and temples spreading around the old city.

Tour operators, hoteliers, international organizations, and government officials from the Greater Mekong sub-region and around the world will debate the country’s tourism strong selling points but will also look at ways to manage the challenge of rapid growth. “Myanmar is a fantastic destination for its cultural and natural assets. And its wonderful population still gives authentic hospitality to visitors,” told Mason Florence, Executive Director of the MTCO. “Myanmar will be Asia's next fabulous destination for visitors who prefer to travel independently and pay a premium over joining traditional tour groups. These travelers like to experience and interact at a deeper level with the local culture, heritage, and local people,” he added.

True: Myanmar is seen as Asia’s most promising destination over the decade to come. The biggest challenge will be to make sure that the country does not go the way of rampant commercialization over the years to come as it opens up to international tourism. “There is a risk of it, but we hope that the government will understand this issue. We have, for example, beautiful old heritage buildings in Yangon, a true asset to the city if they are used wisely,” said Dr. Nuai Aye Aye Wai, Director of the Emerald Sea Resort in Ngwe Saung Beach and also an architect. The Strand hotel has, for example, launched its first packages for heritage and antique shop tours through Yangon.

Newly-elected CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association Martin Craigs also indicated the association's willingness to help Myanmar on its path to a sustainable tourism future. In Bagan, PATA CEO and Deputy Minister for Hotels and Tourism jointly announced the formation of the first PATA chapter for Myanmar. A definitive sense of normalization.

Myanmar tourism enters a new era
Bagan in Myanmar, stunning views, stunning venue (Photo: Luc Citrinot)

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