Myanmar Is Saying and Doing the Right Things
Ken Scott –One of the highlights of this summer has been the continued rise and opening up of Myanmar. The point was brought home to me by listening to the strong delegation of tourism leaders and stakeholders from Myanmar who addressed the Mekong Tourism Forum in Chiang Rai in June. The delegation was led by Deputy Minister, Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, H.E. U Htay Aung. On reflection, three things impressed me. First, was their apparent earnestness to learn from the mistakes of mass tourism destinations. Second, was the unity between private and public sectors. Third was the diligent way that Myanmar is already working with development agencies to make the new goal of sustainable tourism a reality.
Of course, between the theory and the practice, between the rhetoric and reality falls the shadow. But they are starting out on a long journey with the right guiding principles. Those principles will no doubt be sorely tested along the way.Sensible and proactive people in Myanmar tourism should move quickly. Rapid changes, inconceivable 24 months ago, are transforming the tourism sector at a roller coaster pace. Consider the stats. The country attracted 816,000 international tourism arrivals in 2011 – a 3% increase on 2010.However, since the start of 2012, the rate of international arrivals growth has been in excess of 30%. Olivier Jager of Forward Keys, a France based company that aggregates the latest hotel room demand, confirmed the numbers to the Mekong Forum audience. Myanmar’s hotel demand is growing at 35% he said, with the June-August 2012 period roaring ahead at 54% up.[With demand way ahead of supply, visitors and travel agents are already complaining bitterly about the steep price of rooms in Yangon and upcountry.]
However, PATA forecasts a more modest average rate of 14% increases in international visitor arrivals between now and 2014.
The Myanmar based speakers at the Forum said the opportunities facing Myanmar’s tourism sector were to open up the country, gain interest from people around the world, and attract investment. I don’t think they’ll have any problems on all three counts.
However, there are more difficult challenges such as making the industry ‘sustainable’ – i.e. one driven by fair principles and not a robber baron mentality (such as we’ve seen in global banking). The Myanmar delegation assured the audience that they want quality tourism. They want to learn from best practices in neighbouring countries. They want to integrate with regional and subregional bodies such as Asean and the Greater Mekong Subregion groupings.
To applause, the charming Daw Kyi Kyi Aye, a tourism veteran in Myanmar, told the audience: “Myanmar has ambition. We are an ambitious people. We want to endorse sustainable tourism.”
Not surprisingly, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is increasingly involved in Myanmar’s rehabilitation. The bank’s spokesperson at the Forum said that the ADB and the Norwegian government were working with Naypyidaw on a master plan.
However, as we have seen in Thailand, master plans are ten a penny, especially in tourism. They are often shelved and forgotten before their ink has dried. Let’s hope Myanmar government can implement positive policies and keep increasingly voracious private sector investors (many of them foreigners after a quick buck) under control. For example, it would be a tragedy if wonderful heritage buildings around Myanmar were simply swept away to build concrete box hotels. Yangon, I’m pleading with you, learn from the mistakes of Bangkok and Singapore.
On that point I am quite hopeful because the Yangon Heritage Trust is working hard to channel the physical development of the city in a way that respects heritage buildings. As a sign of sophistication among elements of the governing elite, a moratorium on the destruction of buildings over 50 years old has been put in place. It should become a permanent edict. (The firm hand of centralized government can sometimes be a good thing.)
For all the brouhaha about Myanmar’s new economic era, the ADB in a new report argues that it will take the country 30 years to catch up with where Thailand is today. That’s a generation. And Thailand isn’t going to exactly stand still in the next 30 years either.One concern among Myanmar watchers is if the hardliners in Myanmar don’t see rapid economic growth – i.e. the promised land quickly – there maybe a political reversal. It seems unlikely, I admit.For the moment, let’s take heart that the misguided Burmese Road to Socialism has seemingly been replaced by the new Myanmar road to growth. Whether it is equitable and culturally and environmentally sensitive growth remains to be seen. The journey is just starting. The early signs are encouraging.
Ken Scott is managing director of ScottAsia Communications, a Bangkok-based PR & communications company servicing the travel industry and medical tourism.