The Irrawaddy speaks with Maung Maung Swe, who currently sits as both the chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and the vice-chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Board.
Question: Tourism is widely expected to increase greatly in Myanmar over the next year. How can the infrastructure—specifically the number of hotel rooms, flights, transport services and health facilities—react quickly enough to meet these demands?
Answer: That was the main problem we discussed at a forum in Bangkok two days ago [Jan. 29] and at the Asean Tourism Ministers’ Meeting in Indonesia before that.
The point is that there is a new government now. It has changed all the policies and is willing to receive more tourists.
The first thing to deal with is the fact that our Myanmar currency has strengthened. It was previously 1,200-1,300 kyat per US dollar. And then immediately before the election, everything started to change. It went down to 700 kyat. We were worried about that. Of course, most people think that if your currency is strong it is good for the country, but it affects exports negatively, as it does the tourism sector.
A: For example, European people plan their holidays six months or one year ahead. So for our tourism business in Europe we had to give quotations six months or a year in advance. For the Asian market, it is only two or three months. But our prices given to the European market were based on a dollar value of 1,000 to 1,200 kyat. All quotations are fixed in dollars. The hotels sold their rooms at 1,000 to 1,200 kyat but now—when the people arrive—they are only paying 800. That’s why we have had to increase our prices. We pay local currency to all our workers and for all our expenditures and services. These costs have therefore increased dramatically. The hoteliers need to pass that on to their guests.
But we have a free market policy, so we cannot interfere. They can put their prices up if they want.
Q: Nevertheless, influential publications such as Conde Nast, the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, and Lonely Planet have all recommended Myanmar or predicted the country will be a hotspot in 2012. Can you fill the demand for flights and hotels immediately?
A: We are discussing this matter at our ministry [Ministry of Hotels and Tourism—MoHT] and in the private sector right now. You can see that in Davos all the CEOs were saying, “We have to go to Myanmar, we want to invest there.” The Sheraton, Westin, Marriott—they all say they want to come back.
Some, like the Marriott, invested before. But they withdrew, I think, because of pressure from their governments. Now I think they will all want to come back. I think they will begin surveying the situation this year, but will not return until next year.
Q: Is that at all related to inflation in Myanmar?
A: No, just demand.
You can see in the MoHT figures for 2011 that there are 731 hotels in Myanmar—only 25,000 rooms. Of that number, only about 8,000 are suitable for tourists. In Yangon, less than 3,000 rooms.
At the most recent meetings I suggested to the MoHT that we implement efficient procedures for planning and applications for the 4- and 5-star hotels. After that they can start to build.
Q: Asia Times recently reported that many international hotels were interested in returning because there was “less bureaucracy” and “fewer obstacles” to getting a license. What exactly has changed with regard to investing in the Myanmar tourism industry?
A: We have set up the MIC [Myanmar Investment Commission] which will take care of all applications for foreign investment. They will reduce the red tape and fast-track the applications.
Under Myanmar law, foreigners can invest 100 percent, but Myanmar people still must use their own money to invest—they get no help from the banks. They cannot compete with foreign companies.
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.
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.
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.
Q: Do you expect an open route from Bangkok to Yangon within a few years?
A: Yes, I think so. Because now we have peace, dialogue with the Karen group. The border is open, and the bridge is open. There was an announcement today [Jan. 31] that all Myanmar people can cross the border—they only need an ID card.
Q: Chinese tourism is on the rise. What special attractions do you have for Chinese tourists?
A: Jade. We organize jade emporiums. We get 3,000 to 4,000 foreign traders each time—almost all from China.
Now we sell gas to China, and they have made a very big investment in pipelines. All this news is announced around their country. Before it was only people from Yunnan coming here, but now everyone is coming.
Q: Any applications for Chinese-financed hotels?
A: I think most Chinese admit they are not experienced in the hotel business. They just come here for hydropower, mining, trade, construction. If they offer a loan, they like to control the project by themselves.
Q: Western tourists are usually interested in tropical beaches. Can you accommodate a high demand?
A: I have been to many international fairs over the years, but we never promoted beaches because we think that tourists will be more interested in the culture, the heritage, the pagodas, and so on. The only beach we advertised was Ngapali beach. All the diplomats, when they get a holiday they go there to relax. Not local people.
So now we have to find new beaches. When the season comes, all the rooms are full. Now many hotel investors are paying close attention to the beach areas.
Some southern areas have already started to develop. But we do not allow any speedboats or boats with engines. We must control the noise. Windsurfing is OK, but no engines. But I don't know how long we can control that.
Q: Any plans for new roads to Ngapali or Myeik?
A: We are thinking about building new roads and new airports. The local administrations can make these decisions by themselves. Of course the central government can advise or give suggestions.
Q: Are we likely to see a global marketing campaign for Myanmar any time soon?
A: No. Our ministry has no budget. Our advertising power is very weak—but the hotel chains and long-haul carriers that come in, they will help advertise for us. They will let more people know about Myanmar, our culture. Seeing is believing!
Q: The Italian government recently pledged 400,000 euros for conservation at Bagan. Does this complement a wider plan to conserve ancient sites?
A: We want UNESCO to be involved, but cannot because of US sanctions. However, we are requesting that UNESCO accept Bagan as a World Heritage Site again.
At our Asean meeting, we discussed putting together our own Asean Heritage Fund and we have approached the ADB [Asia Development Bank] about this. Until recently, UNESCO would not participate in meetings in Myanmar, but they came back again earlier this year. This is a good sign that they have changed their minds already.
Q: Are there any forms of tourism you would like to avoid?
A: Yes. The “Zero Packages” from China, where the tourists pay for everything in advance and buy nothing when they are here. At the Asean meeting, we asked the Chinese officials to stop these tours and said we would take away the licenses of the companies who persisted.
Q: Is sex tourism inevitable?
A: We must learn lessons from our Southeast Asian neighbors.
But we don't have many discos and bars. Myanmar people don't tend to drink too much. Where there are bars and discos, there are prostitutes. By knowing this, we can prevent it.
However, even if you tell people they cannot do something, they will do it secretly. Mostly, it's a question of education.
Q: The Boycott Burma campaign, inspired by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, has recently relaxed its conditions on tourism. Do you have any comment about that?
A: I just want to ask them—why boycott? Sector by sector, the boycott only affects the common people, not the government. When US sanctions force a factory to close, 99 percent of the workers are young ladies. So what can they do? They are from the villages. Uneducated. That's why they turn to prostitution.
Q: If foreign visitors cannot use ATMs and credit cards, what are they to do?
A: We had credit cards 10 years ago until the US sanctions. All transactions have to cross the American central bank [the Federal Reserve]. All that will change when the US sanctions are lifted.
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