Tourism industry looks for quick turnaround

Thet Lwin Toh, Chairman of Union of Myanmar Travel Association
DESPITE Myanmar’s tourism business having stalled for more than a year due to religious conflicts in Rakhine State, the nation is making plans to help the industry rebound through accelerating reforms, according to ThetLwinToh, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association (UMTA). 
 
He said at a recent press conference that Myanmar would hold a large tourism conference in Nay Pyi Taw tomorrow in a bid to regain foreign visitors’ interest in the nation.
 
“Obviously, our country is full of interesting places everywhere. Such an enormous potential needs to be urgently unlocked before it is too late,” he said.
 
In cooperation with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and the Myanmar Tourism Federation, UMTA will hold the conference at the Myanmar Convention Centre in the capital. Stakeholders from different clusters of Myanmar’s tourism industry will gather at the event in search of quick-wins for sustainable development, he added.
 
More than 300 people are expected at the event. There, tourism stakeholders will provide suggestions on six core areas – destinations, competitiveness, human resource development, development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), taxation, and investment opportunities.
“It will be an extraordinary event, unlike many other events we have held. It is not for show. It is all-inclusive, and will be a good mix of both public and private sectors. Our top leader will deliver an address, and high-ranking officials from tourism-related ministries will be present so that important decisions can be quickly made,” he said.
 
Internal conflicts
 
“Currently, our economic development has stalled due to international pressures over our internal conflicts. We continue to receive foreign visitors. But currently, our supply much exceeds tourist demand. We need to generate more income from tourism. So, we urgently need to hold an all-inclusive conference to find the best ways.”
 
As of March 31 when fiscal year 2017-18 ended, there were 1,628 licensed hotels with 65,470 rooms in Myanmar. A total of 2,676 tour agencies, 4,503 nationwide tour guides and 3,449 regional tour guides have registered under the Directorate of Hotels and Tourism. Among the tour agencies, one is wholly foreign-owned while 41 firms are operating in the form of joint venture with local counterparts.
 
“Tourism was one of the prioritised areas in the nation’s economic policy during the previous government’s term. But nowadays, it has become less of a priority than ever before. Likewise, we stand behind some other sectors in terms of investment inflows. It is not a satisfactory condition,” he said.
 
“We are eager to highlight that tourism still plays a critical role in the nation’s further development. For that, we need to attract more visitors. Now it is time to express innovative ideas. We should not think only of taking visitors to our pagodas and temples as well as treating them to rice and curry. We also need to improve the quality of our home-made products.”
 
According to ThetLwinToh, Myanmar needs to invite local and international experts to help the industry reach its bright potential. He believes the event will serve as a take-off for the nation’s tourism development. “We will accelerate the reforms next year. We have planned to host an international tourism summit in Myanmar in the near future,” he said.
 
Promotion budget
 
He said Myanmar does not have a large enough budget for the promotion of its market. “The government’s expenditure for tourism is just over US$300,000 (Bt9.5 million) – which is not enough indeed. We need to find the ways to improve our funding. In this case, the government cannot do it alone. The private sector must support it,” he said.
 
Already, tourism stakeholders have provided their inputs through the revision and modification of 1993 Myanmar Tourism Law, he said. Currently awaiting approval from parliament, the new tourism law will be enacted later this year. He urged small businesses in the tourism sector be encouraged.
 
“We need to take SMEs into serious consideration. Only when more tourists visit here, they can survive. For example, foreigners could visit border areas in the past. But nowadays there are some restrictions on travels to border areas, due to some conflicts. If we can promote tourism in those areas, we can help improve the life and living standards of local residents,” he said. 
 
He also urged the authorities to ensure easier access to Myanmar so that the nation would receive more tourists in the years to come. 
 
“Doubtlessly, visa exemption is the key.” Myanmar already issues visa-on-arrival to citizens of some countries. “It will be much better if many countries can apply for a Myanmar visa online. And we need to establish direct air links with Western countries, particularly those from Europe,” he said.
 
By KHINE KYAW
Myanmar Eleven
Yangon