Myanmar’s tourism proposals offer small gestures but miss the elephant in the room

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Myanmar’s Vice President unveiled the government’s latest plans to attract tourists. They do little to address the real factors driving tourists away.


At the opening of the Myanmar Tourism Conference, Vice President U Henry Van Thio addressed those in attendance. He outlined plans to boost tourist numbers to Myanmar. He announced measures to ease visa restrictions to attract more visitors from ASEAN nations, China, and South Korea. He also urged those at the conference to increase advertising and marketing efforts abroad.

Myanmar has been trying to recuperate lost tourism revenue

Sources: CEIC, The Irrawaddy

Myanmar is on a crusade to reattract tourists. Since 2015, tourist numbers have taken a hit. Violence in the Rakhine State led to many Western tourists cancelling holiday bookings. Local operators predict fewer tourist arrivals in Myanmar this year than last year.

In 2013, the Ministry for Hotels and Tourism devised a plan to attract 7.5 million tourists annually by 2020. The tourism drive centred around hotel construction. By 2015, there were 1,300 hotels, almost doubling in number from 2010.

But five years later, the plan has been an almost total failure. Hotel occupancy rates sit below 40% during the monsoon season. In the peak season, they rise to an unimpressive 50%.

Overinvestment in hotels and underinvestment in infrastructure has impeded progress. Hotels received US$400 million of foreign investment in the 2016-2017 financial year. But poor infrastructure has left new beach resorts difficult to access. Recently-developed Eco-tourism spots receive almost no international visitors due to poor road conditions.

Despite dwindling demand, the Department of Civil Aviation is pushing ahead with plans to build a new airport. Hathawaddy Airport will cost the government US$1.5 billion, and once operational will accommodate 12 million passengers.

The Burmese Government is ignoring the elephant in the room

So far, the government’s investment has been misplaced. U Henry Van Thio called for more investment in advertising. This is a welcome step. The government’s current budget for tourism promotion is just US$300,000. But investment in advertising and relaxing visa restrictions do nothing to address the elephant in the room.

At the heart of Myanmar’s dwindling tourist figures is the country’s instability. Extensive conflict means there is almost no safe travel in the North of the country. Ethnic violence against the Rohingya has dominated international headlines, eclipsing coverage of Myanmar as a tourist destination.

Even the country’s airport has been the site of violence. Last year a government adviser was killed outside Myanmar’s international airport. This has done nothing to alleviate tourist fears.

U Tint Thwin, director-general of the Hotels and Tourism Ministry conceded that instability was deterring Western tourists from visiting the country. He said, “we explained the Rakhine issue at international tourism fairs, as well as on our websites”.

But explaining the issue is not enough. Until the Burmese government and military make significant progress in bringing stability to Rakhine State and Kachin, Myanmar’s tourist growth figures will remain sluggish.

The economic incentives should encourage the government to restore peace to Myanmar

Stability in the North would allow the return of day-trippers from China. Peace in Rakhine State would ease European and American visitor’s concerns over the ethical implications of visiting Myanmar.

Myanmar has a lot to offer tourists. It is one of the last bastions of unspoilt beauty in Asia, with pristine beaches and rugged landscapes. Tourists also have a lot to offer Myanmar. Before fresh violence erupted in the North, tourism was beginning to yield economic dividends.

Between 2012 and 2016, tourism revenues soared from US$534 million to US$2.2 billion. The industry expanded from 735,000 workers to more than 1.5 million.

The allure of economic gain should be an incentive for the government to seek a peaceful resolution to Myanmar’s conflicts. Rather than offer small gestures, the Vice President would be better served by channelling his energy into bringing stability to Myanmar. Only then will this stunning country receive the positive press it needs to put it on the map as an alluring destination for international tourists.