Myanmar’s nascent tourism sector must be cautious
No other country in the world has had such an incredible turnaround on tourism as has Myanmar. Five years ago, foreign tourists hardly knew about this country except that it was in a complete lock-down under a dictatorial regime. Fewer than 40,000 tourists came here in 2010. But since the country opened up and began economic and political reforms in 2011, the numbers have gradually increased. Last year, the country recorded nearly 3 million visitors, and the authorities are expecting that number to keep growing.
There are some good reasons for this phenomenon. First, it must be acknowledged that Myanmar, as a democratic nation in transition, has attracted potential tourists from around the world. Dramatic political reforms in recent years coupled with Aung San Su Kyi’s reputation have put Myanmar on the must-see and must-visit list. However, Myanmar’s government has recently been under severe attack due to the Rakhine refugee crisis. Some tours have been cancelled, but overall visitor numbers will increase.
Other countries in ASEAN that do not have a democratic system have not experienced the same meteoric rise in tourism as has Myanmar. In fact, political reforms have enabled foreigners to visit the country without much hassle. Also, local people have more freedom to travel both inside and outside of the country. In the past, it took foreign visitors weeks to obtain tourist visas. Now they can get visas online or at the airports. Overall, potential visitors feel better about visiting a democratic country.
Secondly, Myanmar is still a virgin land as far as tourism is concerned. There is no need for the country to rush. There are lots of exotic places, natural beauty and wildlife. In South East Asia, northern Myanmar’s snow-capped mountains are the most unusual tourist designation as are historic places like Mandalay and Bagan. Also, the Myeik archipelago, with its more than 800 unspoiled islands, is a must for eco-tourists.
Thirdly, there are good examples of dos and don’ts in the tourism industry in neighbouring countries. Indeed, the main reason that foreign visitors are choosing Myanmar is quite simple ? the country is still underdeveloped and untampered with by modernisation. Therefore, it is better to slow down instead of going full speed ahead with unregulated tourism incentives.
Vice President Henry Van Thio was right when he said that tourism must bring better understanding and appreciation among different cultures. Therefore, to obtain long-term benefits from tourism, appropriate arrangements and preparations are urgently required.
He identified improvement of infrastructure and connectivity as top priorities. To accomplish this requires the cooperation of all concerned government agencies and the private sector.
Myanmar has to improve air connectivity with the rest of ASEAN, whose citizens would form the bulk of tourists visiting the country. ASEAN integration has entered its second year, and cross-border movement of citizens within the region will promote tourism. The proliferation of budget airlines has increased people-to-people contacts and exchanges.
The ASEAN passport lanes set up at international airports in member countries not only promote tourism but also the ASEAN identity and sense of belonging. However, not all ASEAN airports have met the requirement in the ASEAN charter to set up these lanes.
Myanmar needs to seriously assess its tourism environment to ensure that tourists will contribute to the well-being of local communities. As Dr. Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization so aptly put it: Whenever you travel, wherever you travel, remember to respect nature, respect culture and respect your host.
Source: Myanmar Times
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