Q: What is the difference in responsibility between the UMTA [Union of Myanmar Travel Association], the MTB [Myanmar Tourism Board], the MMC [Myanmar Marketing Committee] and other groups such as the MHA [Myanmar Hoteliers Association]?
A: The new government wanted to establish one body to deal directly with the ministry—the MTB, which has the job of facilitating policy. The UMTA works with the hotels and tour operators. The MMC comes under the MTB, and they represent us at international trade fairs.
Dr U Khin Swe is the chairman of the MTB. I am vice-chairman. The MTB is still very new. It makes suggestions to the government, holds workshops, entertains delegations—shows them what we can do.
They are hosting a sustainable tourism seminar in Yangon on Feb. 22–24, for example. One day for public sector, one for private, one joint-conference. It is co-sponsored by a German NGO and the MTB.
Q: Is it possible to create a brand new tourism market that is also sustainable?
A: We have a lot of skilled people in the hospitality sector here, but they all go abroad to work. To the Middle East, on cruises, Singapore, Thailand, etc. They study here, train here, but after that, they leave for better jobs. Hotels like the Shangri-la do that too. They train staff here, then send them to chains around the world. We have to change that.
Q: The state press has reported that business people were being invited to invest in hotels. And I heard that some colonial buildings were likely to be converted into hotels. Can you tell us about that?
A: Actually, investors can buy colonial buildings, but the government has stated that they cannot change the exterior. They can decorate the interior as they like, of course. Others have suggested turning old buildings into museums, one of which has already been accepted. Other colonial buildings have been sold to banks, some to the private sector.
We need to renovate these colonial buildings, but you spend more on that than on a completely new building. However, some people are willing to finance this. And, I think, the government will support this too.
Q: And the ministerial buildings that are being vacated as the ministries move to Naypyidaw? Any plans to sell them off as hotels?
A: Whichever ministry owns the building, owns the land. They can sell it by themselves. As for which ones are considered colonial [heritage sites], that decision is made by the Ministry of Culture.
Q: You worked for a long time in tourism in Thailand. To what degree is Myanmar tourism linked to Thailand?
A: I still do a lot of work on behalf of TAT [Tourism Authority of Thailand]. We have worked together on the “Two Countries, one Destination” campaign. When Bangkok Airport was closed down we were badly affected. That's why we have to consider more direct flights. Until now, Bangkok and Singapore were our main gateways. Now we have direct flights from Yangon to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Malaysia, Guangzhou, and soon to Bangladesh.
For Europeans, we had Qatar Air flying in, but after one year they stopped. We don't know if it was because of the sanctions or because of occupancy.
Lauda Air also operated from Vienna to Yangon and Phuket. But they also stopped. I think they will both be coming back.
Q: What is attractive to foreigners about Myanmar?
A: The culture. We have more than 130 nationalities, different traditions, different languages, different costumes. It's one of the most wonderful cultures in the world. And of course the Myanmar people have such a friendly and gentle nature, same as Thailand 30 years ago.
Q: Will it be possible for foreign tourists to have access to ethnic areas?
A: Yes, sure. Even under the military government we allowed tourists to visit up to 95 percent of the whole country. Only a few ethnic groups remain that are opposed to the government. Of course, we worry about the safety of tourists.
A Thai company has told me that if we can resolve the crisis at the Myawaddy border area, they would have fleets of 4WDs ready to cross the border immediately bringing Asean tourists.