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

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Western tourists mingle with ordinary folks in downtown Yangon.
Photo: Ko Ko Htay/The 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.

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 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.

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