Myanmar’s tourism star on the rise after record year

THE future just keeps looking brighter for Myanmar. International investments have gathered pace since the country’s march toward democratization began in 2010. The tourism industry has been booming recently, thanks to increased flights, ease of travel, and the government’s increasingly open attitude toward the international community. Ancient sites such as the temples of Bagan, Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, and the archipelagos of Myeik are becoming priority items on more travelers’ Southeast Asia bucket lists, so much so that the Burmese government expects 2015 to be a banner year.

An estimated five million tourists will descend on Myanmar and its ancient attractions this year. That will be a significant increase over 2014, which saw a record-breaking 3.05 million people visit. If the estimate is correct, tourism growth this year will be an even bigger leap than between 2013 and 2014.

The rapid rise in Burma’s popularity meant more than $1 billion in tourism revenue last year, and rate of the growth of the tourism industry makes it on of ASEAN tourism’s biggest success stories. In 2012, for the first time, just over 1 million tourists visited Burma and the tourism industry made $534 million, in 2013 2.04 million tourists came and spent US$926 million, and in 2014 about 3.5 million tourists earned the country an estimated $1.135 billion.

In late 2012 the Burmese government, with the help of the Asian Development Bank, came up with a tourism master plan for the years 2013 to 2020. The plan expected between 1.52 million and 3.09 million tourists to visit in 2015 and between 2.81 and 7.48 million in 2020. Clearly, judging by the provisional estimates for 2014 those figures should be easily exceeded.

Two factors that are believed to have increased tourist numbers so dramatically in 2014 were the introduction of e-visas and an increase in the number of flights to Burma.

E-visas were first introduced on September 1, 2014 and allow people from 67 different countries to apply online for visas. Nearly 40,000 e-visas had been issued by the end of December 2014 and, at the time of writing, were available to visitors from 100 countries.

As far as improved international connectivity goes, Naung Naung Han, the general secretary of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and the managing director of Radiant Tours Co Ltd, told Thailand daily The Nation: “We now have more airlines, including budget airlines, and existing airlines are also expanding new routes as well as the number of aircraft. For example, in the past, there were about 5-6 flights from Yangon to Bangkok per day. Now, there are about 12-14 flights flying the same route daily.”

 

The ASEAN Tourism Forum 2015 was hosted in Myanmar's capital Nay Pyi Taw in January this year.

The ASEAN Tourism Forum 2015 was hosted in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw in January this year.

By the end of next year the authorities hope to have raised Yangon International Airport’s capacity from 2.7 million passengers a year to 6 million passengers a year. There are also plans to build a new international airport at Hantharwady, about 80km from Yangon, by the end of 2017.

To further fuel the growth, the government plans to open a Tourism Development Bank that will loan money to tour companies and entrepreneurs interested in opening travel-related businesses to cater to the wave of visitors.

Earlier this year, Myanmar hosted the ASEAN Tourism Forum, Jan. 22-29, for the first time in its history, further signaling the industry’s importance to the burgeoning economy and the nation’s arrival as one of the most sought-after tourism destinations in Southeast Asia. The Columbus Dispatch, an American newspaper, predicted that Burma, alongside other developing nations such as Cuba, will be a “hot” tourism destination this year.

Like Myanmar, Cambodia is another country eager to grow its tourism industry. Tourism officials from Cambodia and China recently signed an agreement to enhance travel between the two countries, bolstering the tour companies and travel services already in place. A rise in the number of affluent or middle-class Chinese has meant more Chinese travelers to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand.

But Cambodia and Burma could well become attractive destinations for Chinese travelers, especially if there is an increase in tour services and quality hotels and resorts. Cambodia will also host a tourism conference this year, the World Conference on Tourism and Culture, organized by the UNWTO and UNESCO. This could signify Cambodia’s potential importance to ASEAN tourism, and is an opportunity for the government to prove that it is ready to ramp up its offerings and attract a wider range of travelers.

Thailand, a neighbor of both Burma and Cambodia, has long been a prominent travel destination for tourists from around the world. But the country suffered blows to its tourism industry in 2014 due to political unrest, the declaration of martial law, and a military coup last May. While the tourism industry there struggled in the months after the political unrest, visitor numbers rebounded strongly at the end of 2014, a trend that is continuing into 2015.

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