- What is a tourist and why does it matter? These are the questions being asked in the travel industry following the government’s announcement that Myanmar welcomed more than 3 million tourists in 2014.
Tourists and Myanmar visitors watch the sun set from the top of a temple at Bagan. (Yu Yu/The Myanmar Times),
What should be a cause for celebration is quickly becoming one of concern, with observers urging the government to aim lower and focus on inclusivity and sustainable development. The growth in tourism has sent prices for hotel rooms and tour guides soaring, while domestic flights remain expensive relative to the region. Experts warn that once the “opening-up” lustre wears off, Myanmar will have earned itself a reputation as poor value for money, and in turn scare off potential new visitors.
“Myanmar is quite expensive to travel in, and people are still willing to pay for it because of its exotic character, but this might change in two, three or four years,” said Nicole Haeusler, who works on behalf of German government as an adviser to the Myanmar Tourism Federation.
These price pressures will only be exacerbated by increased demand. So far, however, calls for moderation have gone unheeded, with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announcing a target of 4.5 million to 5 million visitors for 2015.
The numbers game
For decades Myanmar’s tourism leaders have been obsessed with achieving ever-higher arrival figures. Previous ministers would regularly exhort private-sector businesses to ignore the reality of the tourism boycott and invest in marketing and infrastructure to reach the magical 1 million mark.
But why are tourism arrivals important to the government? Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University, said one attraction is that they can be used as an “objective” or “hard data” metric of success – one reason why President U Thein Sein trumpeted the 2014 total in his New Year address.
The sanctions and the tourism boycott campaign give them an added “contextual relevance” to Myanmar, Mr Turnell said, but economic factors are the “most important”.
“Tourism brings in not just income, but foreign exchange. It is highly labour-intensive, hence generates disproportionate employment opportunities,” he said, adding that they tend to benefit the tertiary-educated middle classes – “a politically and economically important cohort”.
This desire for growth was also evident during the development of the Tourism Master Plan 2013-2020, which was released to much fanfare at the World Economic Forum in June 2012.
While those drafting the report advised that the middle-growth scenario – 2.2 million visitors in 2015 and 5 million in 2020 – was the most likely based on regional experience, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism insisted on going for high-growth: 3.09 million international visitors in 2015 and 7.48 million by 2020. This would see tourism receipts increase from US$534 million in 2012 to $10.18 billion in 2020, by which time the industry could comprise 1.49 million jobs.
Now, even that high-growth scenario seems to have been thrown out the window. But how did the ministry break the 3 million barrier so soon?
According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, Myanmar’s tourist arrivals shot up sharply in 2013, when border arrivals from India, Bangladesh and Laos were counted alongside those from China and Thailand.
This means that border arrivals, which had hovered between 400,000 and 500,000 a year for a decade, rocketed to 1.144 million in 2013. Overall arrivals surged to about 2 million.
But the fact is that Myanmar did not receive more than 3 million international tourists last year – at least according to most international standards. Far from it: Almost two-thirds of the 3 million figure – about 1.9 million visitors – were day-trippers from Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh, according to PATA. The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as those who spend at least 24 hours in-country, while PATA counts only overnight visitors.
Numbers of genuine tourists have certainly increased, and sharply. Arrivals through international airports – primarily Yangon, but also including Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw, Myeik and Mawlamyine – rose from 593,000 in 2012 to 885,000 in 2013 and 1.08 million last year. The
ministry counts all of these arrivals as tourists, even though only 48.2 percent of those who passed through Yangon International Airport in 2014 did so on a tourist visa.
One of the best indicators of genuine tourist arrivals is entrance ticket sales at Shwedagon Pagoda, and these increased from 400,852 in 2013 to 505,351 – a rise of 26pc that roughly mirrors the 22pc growth in air arrivals and the 24pc increase in visitors to Inle Lake.
4.5 million – a viable dream?
This relatively sluggish growth in air arrivals last year suggests that reaching 4.5 million, even by lumping in non-tourists, could be a major stretch. Even with the liberalisation of the policy on border arrivals – foreign visitors can now enter at four crossings on the Thai border and continue to other parts of Myanmar – these are unlikely to grow fast enough to sustain 50pc growth in overall arrivals. PATA chief executive officer Mario Hardy said last week the target “may not be achievable” but that Myanmar as still expected to enjoy strong growth of about 20pc in overnight visitors, which it expects to rise to 1.37 million.
But Ministry of Hotels and Tourism director U Myo Win Nyunt defended the target, saying it could be reached by upgrading airports, opening new border gates and promoting new destinations, such as the three Pyu cities that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in June. Hotel room rates are also likely to moderate during the year, he said, due to the opening of new properties.
“We have more than 40,000 rooms in the whole country and also new hotels will open this year, so there will be no shortage as a result of growing tourist numbers and room prices won’t increase,” he said.
Another uncertainty is Myanmar’s political situation, particularly given the general election is scheduled for the start of the peak tourist season. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s tourism boycott hobbled the industry for the best part of two decades, and political turbulence could again dampen arrival numbers.
“Tourism is very sensitive and depends on the political situation,” said U Khin Aung Tun, secretary of the Myanmar Tourism Federation. “If the country lacks stability – whether it’s because of politics, conflict, [human rights] abuses or disease – it will impact on the tourism industry.”
U Naung Naung Han, managing director of Radiant Travels and Tours, said he expected arrivals to reach somewhere between 3.5 million and 4 million. He said more attention should be paid to ensuring visitors get value for money, as this will encourage them to return for additional visits and also to
recommend the country to others. Improving airports, expanding online visa services and marketing new destinations would also stimulate growth.
“I would like to reach [the government’s] target but hotel rooms and services do not offer good enough value for money yet,” he said.
“If travel expenses are reasonable … then more tourists will come.”
Quality vs quantity
The push for rapid growth has obscured information about who actually visits Myanmar – data that is needed by both the government and the private sector to meet existing and future demand for services, according to experts.
Ms Haeusler said visitors should be broken down into leisure, long-term and short-term business, and border visitors. “For example, do we need to construct in the future more business hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, or rather holiday hotels for bigger tour groups?” she said.
She also called for a review of the annual target and questioned why high-growth tourism had been accepted as the best option, with apparent disregard for the Tourism Master Plan.
“Maybe we have to go back to the question: Do we want to offer more quantity in terms of tourism numbers or more quality service in Myanmar in the upcoming years? It is challenging to work on both tasks at the same time,” she said.
“I believe that it would be more healthy – and responsible – for leisure tourism … to follow rather a conservative or mid-range scenario in the upcoming years.”
It has also driven up prices, which Ms Haeusler said was “gamble” that Myanmar could take for one or two years – “but then they’re going to lose”.
“If Myanmar is then not offering the same rates as neighbouring countries, but also competitors like Egypt – culture, sea – and Mexico – culture, nice beaches … they might have a lot of problems to withstand international competition,” she said.
“I assume that in three or four years’ time tourism numbers might go down again as Myanmar will lose it exotic character. Nevertheless, such a phase would give them the opportunity to recover and get again a new – and well-defined – market.”
Growth will also be moderated by the speed – or lack thereof – with which infrastructure and services can be rolled out.
Mr Hardy from PATA said infrastructure requirements are not being built “fast enough to meet demand”, while tourism businesses are struggling to find staff with the required skills.
“PATA has some concerns regarding human capital development and the need for more formal education programs to develop the talent required to fulfil the job demand,” he said.
He also urged restraint and a focus on ensuring the benefits of tourism are spread throughout the country and not just at a few destinations.
“As Myanmar tourism is still in its infancy, there is an opportunity for the country to ensure it develops sustainable tourism … [so that] wealth is widely spread [to] help the development of various communities throughout the country.”
- By Ei Ei Thu and Thomas Kean | Monday, 19 January 2015 MyanmarTimes http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/in-depth/12828-why-myanmar-s-tourist-numbers-don-t-add-up.html