Big Decisions on Myanmar’s Road to the Future
On April 1 Myanmar held by-elections that saw Aung San Suu Kyi re-elected to parliament. Let us pause for a second to consider the tumultuous journey Myanmar has been on in the last year. And also consider what this may mean for the people of Myanmar and tourism.
Here’s a guest blog by long-term Southeast Asia resident Ken Scott on the subject.
There have been radical changes indeed. They would, frankly, have been inconceivable over a year ago. Since the flawed elections in 2010, Myanmar has taken big steps towards a more mixed economy, democracy and reconciliation. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the creation of a National Human Rights Commission, freedom for political prisoners, and new laws easing censorship of the press have all been implemented. Foreign secretaries from the United States, UK and Canada have visited to encourage continued change.
There is consensus that the changes are here to stay. At a hotel investment session at HICAP Update last month, the Myanmar specialists agreed that the changes had been planned and thought through as part of a long-term vision. While there’s no definitive word on why the government has so suddenly changed its direction, there are, however, some big picture considerations.
Myanmar will host the Southeast Asia Games in 2013. It will become Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. Getting sanctions lifted would allow huge amount of investment money from the West to enter. Western investment would be a counter-balance to the increasing influence of China.
But what about the conditions of ordinary Myanmar people? One expatriate tourism industry professional living in Yangon told me that things aren’t as rosy as they appear. He said flights are full of workers leaving the country (with few coming back) and relative purchasing power of the people is declining. He said internet and telephone services are buckling under increased demand. Red tape is worse than 10 years ago. He said criminality and aggression among young people are on the rise. Living in Yangon he sees things close up. He said: “I am optimistic that things will slowly improve if sanctions are lifted and if the current president and government gets a chance to continue their reforms.
What about tourism? Demand is seriously outstripping hotel room and air seat supply, especially between November and March, peak season. Getting a hotel room in Yangon or Bagan is difficult. Hoteliers that once converted empty hotel rooms into offices are now rapidly reconverting them back to hotel rooms. Who is going to train all the staff needed?
Yangon now has direct air links with 17 international cities. In October, Condor Air (from Frankfurt) will start flying to Yangon. At ITB Berlin, Qatar Airways said it would start flights to Myanmar anytime between May and November this year.
Mass tourism or niche tourism?
Thailand attracts about 20 million international arrivals each year, Myanmar, 400,000. I know jobs will be created with the expected new tourism onslaught, but I want Myanmar to learn from the mistakes of neighbouring countries.
Zoning and architectural heritage protection are vital. That’s why the conservation work of the Yangon Heritage Trust, an NGO set up by Dr Thant Myint-U, deserves to be fully supported by the government and private sector.
With freedom comes more choice – difficult choices. The April 1 by-elections were another important milestone on Myanmar’s heady new journey. All of us standing on the sidelines can only play a small role in Myanmar’s future. We hope the people of Myanmar find themselves making the right choices on their new journey. We wish them well.