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Myanmar needs more than easing of visa rules to perk up tourism

Western tourists mingle with ordinary folks in downtown Yangon. Ko Ko Htay/The Myanmar Times. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

NAY PYI TAW, Oct 20, 2019, Myanmar Times. There is no doubt the government struggles to plug the gaping hole brought about by the ripples of the northern Rakhine conflict that have western tourists shunning the country. The number of tourists, especially from western European countries, has been on the slide since the massive military operation in August 2017 aimed at flushing out the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, reported the Myanmar Times.

Subsequent accusations of systematic abuses perpetrated by government forces that forced over 700,000 Muslim people in northern Rakhine to flee to cramped camps in Bangladesh tarnished the country’s international image.

From January to August this year, there were only 110,000 European visitors in the country, a 2 percent decline compared to the same period a year ago, people in the hotels and tourism industry say.

While political, diplomatic and security measures are being implemented to stabilise the situation in the area and to mend frayed ties, the government also took a small step to woo Western tourists back, the latest of which is introducing visa-on-arrival access.

Since the start of the month visitors from Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Australia began to enjoy visa-on-arrival access but industry stakeholders and experts said the government has to do much more to woo Western tourists and boost the country’s sluggish tourism industry.

“Easing visa requirements can attract tourists a little bit more than before, however, it is not enough,” said Daw Phyu Phyu Mar, joint secretary of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing Association.

Once, Myanmar was a favourite destination among western tourists because of its rich culture and history as well as its pristine natural attractions such as the Bagan pagodas and the cities of Yangon and Mandalay.

Daw Phyu Phyu Mar said that to make tourism new destinations have to be developed and infrastructure such as transportation and accommodation needs to be built. She said the possible new destinations are Loikaw and Mergui Archipelago.

U Myo Yi, a Mandalay-based tour operator, lamented that tour season has already started when the easing of visa regulations on the six Western countries took effect.

“Travel operators don’t have much time to make preparation for this year’s tourism season as they learned about the visa relaxation to Western countries just three months advance,” he said, adding that only backpackers would be able to enjoy the new policy at this time.

Travel company executives are urging the government to spearhead international travel promotions in Western countries in order to provide a more detailed information about what Myanmar can offer.

Daw Khin Than Win, deputy director general of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, conceded that it is too late on the day to organize travel expos this year.

“This is the beginning of the tourism season so we don’t have a plan to go to organise travel exhibitions in western countries,” she said.

“We have a plan to go to China,” she added. “The ministry has worked on digital marketing as an attempt to promote the market.”

The China market has boosted the number of tourists coming into the country offsetting the downward spiral in the number of western visitors.

Government data showed that from January to August this year, more than 1.2 million foreign tourists visited Myanmar, 300,000 more or a 39 percent rise compared to the same period last year.

The increase can be attributed to more visitors coming from neighbouring Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea and China, which have been the target of the “Look-East policy” tourism policy of the government.

The number of Chinese tourists recorded the highest rise, increasing by 160 pc compared to the same period last year but since most of the Chinese visitors are on budget tours, the revenue generated was not as high as expected. On the other hand, tour operators observed that visitors from Germany, Italy, Australia, Russia, Switzerland, and Spain usually in the country for up to two weeks and spend a lot of money.

U Aung Tun Lin, an Italian-speaking tour guide, expressed hope that the visa relaxation for western countries will eventually attract more visitors.

“At present, the tour guides have only received far fewer visitors than last year,” he said. “We hope more of them (western tourists) will come in the future.”

U Thet Lwin Toe, a local tourism expert, said discussions on providing visa-on-arrival access for western countries dragged on for almost year before it was implemented.

“The look east policy alone is not enough. We also have to have the Look-West policy too, otherwise our value market will disappear,” he said. “The current situation of the tourism is now only based on volume tourism.”

Tourism stakeholders said that the government need to be pro-active in handling travel advisories from foreign governments or if there is unrest somewhere in the country.

U Moe Wai Yan Myint, a manager and adviser of a Bagan-based hotel, urged the government to provide timely response whenever unrests break out or adverse advisories are issued by foreign government.

“We can attract clients with the tourist safety measures being implemented,” he said. “But they don’t do it immediately and I can’t think of the reason for it.”

U Thet Lwin Toe agreed, noting that a timely response to negative news about the country could help in allaying fears of potential foreign visitors.

He cited the recent advisories of western governments about possible terrorist attacks in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, wherein it took a while before an official response was issued.

“When we were asked about the statement from US Embassy, we told them (potential visitors) to come as it is safe here,” he said. “But official statements will be more effective than ours.”

U Thet Lwin Toe said that if the government can come up with timely response, the tour operators could immediately relay this to their clients.

“We don’t have such quick response,” he said.

U Thet Lwin Toe pointed out that appointing tourism ambassadors such as (mixed martial artist) Aung La and Morisaki Win, among others are stopgap measures, so are the visa liberalisation policies, the marketing and advertising promotions.

He said a long-term solution would require the formation of a tourism board, which can coordinate all the activities of the stakeholders in the industry.

“What is required is an organisation like a tourism board. Existing tourism associations are just busy with meetings. There is no progress because there is no budget, no professionals,” he said. As all are business people receiving no salaries, they cannot be blamed if they work for their own interests,” he said.

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