The UK based Wanderlust magazine says Myanmar has gone from being the world’s most controversial travel destination to, potentially, the most exciting and has named the country the ‘top emerging destination of 2011.’
Myanmar's untouched, picture-perfect beaches have made it the top travel destination for 2011
Though Myanmar still has a long way to go to compete with its Asian neighbors as a tourism destination, overall tourism in the country has been increasing. According to the Bangkok based Pacific Asia Travel Association, or PATA, Myanmar received more than 310,000 tourists last year through Mandalay and Bagan international airports, setting a new foreign inbound record.
"It really is one of those unspoiled places where everyone is pleased to see you, it’s not crowded, you get extremely good value for money," says John Koldowski of PATA, adding that ethnic tourism is "a big draw for tourists these days."
Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, one of the major tourist destinations
New airlines, such as Vietnam Airlines and Air Asia, have recently added Myanmar as a flight destination. This has been enticing to visitors, says Khiang Mee Mee Htun from Myanmar's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. "For the early months of this year, the arrivals through air entry at Yangoon international airport are up almost 28 percent, (compared to) the same period last year."
She adds: "The border tourism is the main contributor to the country’s tourism figures as we share long borders with the neighboring countries such as China and Thailand."
Myanmar – ‘Top emerging destination of 2011’
Foreign Individual Travellers or FITs, made up the majority of the increase. More than 54 percent of visitors were from Asia, with the largest number coming from Thailand and South Korea. Currently there are 14 international airlines operating regular flights to Yangoon and Myanmar Airways International (MAI) has also launched its operations, flying between Yangoon and Siam Rep, Cambodia, since February this year. Htun is confident that the "uptrend of arrivals to major tourist destinations such as Yangoon, Bagan and Mandalay" will continue in the future.
The National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had originally called for tourists to boycott Myanmar in 1995. This had been in response to the junta's "Visit Myanmar" campaign and amid reports of forced labour being used to build airports and luxury hotels.
People rejoice the release of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
But things have changed since Suu Kyi's release from house arrest last November, says Bret Melzer, who runs Balloons Over Bagan – a company that takes tourists on hot air balloon rides over the ancient temple city. Since her release, Suu Kyi's party has signalled a policy change on tourism saying that they are no longer opposed to all tourism, but only to large-scale package tourism.
Suu Kyi’s release boosts tourism
"I think the release of the lady from house arrest was a very positive piece of news for the tourism markets," points out Melzer. "A lot of companies overseas still look to her, to hear what her views are on the subject. The majority view now seems to be that tourism can play a positive role here in Myanmar."
Despite the issue with politics and the government, Myanmar has traditionally been a safe destination and its people have always welcomed tourists, says Melzer. But he is weary of the "bottlenecks in terms of the infrastructure, in terms of the availability of decent accommodation, availability of flights into the country; just the general transport infrastructure and the capacity of the local airports. So we’re not quite there yet," he adds.
Unspoiled beaches are home to small fishing villages and are now attracting visitors
"I think there’s a definite line that needs to be considered on how much is good for Myanmar, how much is good for the people and how quickly do we want it to grow," John Koldowski from PATA points out that it will be crucial that Myanmar find balance between tourism and infrastructure. "If you don’t control it, it will run away from you, and that can bring with it serious degradation and that certainly impacts people’s culture and lives. But if you manage it properly, you can actually enhance it at the same time."
Tourists have veered away from Myanmar due to its political scene and have instead turned to other, more popular Asian shores. But that is now changing in one of the world's least developed countries after nearly 50 years of military rule. And now with plans to create one single visa valid for all ASEAN countries, of which Myanmar is a member, the changes could auger well for a country which has remained closed to much of the outside visitors till now.
Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Sarah Berning