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The State of Tourism

Long before the country was a “no go” area for most international tourists, Myanmar long attracted visitors captivated by its beautiful landscapes, strong history and culture and easygoing, friendly locals. It was inevitable, then, that when the government began introducing reforms that would see the country go from pariah to darling in just a few short years, that the visitors would come flooding back.

In the 2013 calendar year, visitor numbers to Myanmar reached upwards of two million for the first time, almost double the number that had arrived the previous year. The Minister for Hotels and Tourism, U Htay Aung, has already stated that the ministry is aiming for three million visitors by the end of this year.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in the major destinations – namely Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and the beach resorts of Ngwe Saung and Ngapali – hotel managers and owners have seen the prospects on offer and hiked their prices accordingly. According to some figures, hotel occupancy in the most popular areas is upwards of 75 percent, compared to less than 40 percent in even the most popular beach destinations in neighbouring Thailand, and some of the most high end hotels in Yangon have upped prices by almost 500 percent since 2011.

Yet, few of the hotels are investing the extra cash into improving customers’ experiences, meaning visitors are paying over the odds for rooms that are not of the standard of cheaper rooms elsewhere. In the last year or so, international hotel brands including Novotel, Best Western and Hilton have announced that they soon plan to begin ventures in the country and many smaller entrepreneurs are exploring the option of starting their own smaller hotels. Those that are happy to collect their cash and sit on it, rather than upgrade and improve, will only lose out when this happens.

The price hike is causing problems for tour operators in the country, too. One unnamed tour operator said that there have been a number of incidents where they have booked hotel rooms for a group tour in Yangon months in advance, only to be told, upon the group’s arrival, that the reservations were cancelled and booked for another group who were willing to pay more.

“Hotels are really greedy. They charge US$150 a night for a room that is worth only US$40… complaints from travellers about poor facilities are increasing, causing potential damage to the image of the country,” another travel company said.

There are other challenges to be met, too. With development comes profit, and that can often lead to the potential loss of culture. Myanmar has a remarkably strong and unique culture that is never likely to disappear entirely, but as the country develops, there is the risk that certain elements of traditional heritage will fall away as gentrification inevitably descends on the country.

At Inle Lake, among the “Big Four” destinations that most visitors to Myanmar see, a group of local people are working to try and ensure that their unique heritage remains intact.

Despite being in Shan State, the majority of people living on the lake are of the Intha group of people. Their lives and customs generally revolve around life on the lake and the Intha Heritage House has been set up to preserve this heritage as more international businesses look at the area due to its huge potential.

Currently, there are just a handful of locally owned hotels in and around Inle Lake and, while this has been helped by the government ensuring that no international companies can begin tourism ventures completely on their own, there is still a risk that the money being made by the larger companies in Inle Lake will not pour down into the community.

Some of what the Intha Heritage Group have done has included breeding Burmese cats and opening an aquarium that conserves the fish that are indigenous to the lake, but the majority of their work comes from ensuring that those international companies ensure that what they do is sustainable.

“If they [foreign run hotels] want to sustain their businesses, outside investors should take care of the local community. If Inle is no longer attractive to tourists, no one will come, no matter how much you have invested,” Daw Yin Myo Su, the Intha Heritage House founder said.

Inle Lake is a well established tourist destination within Myanmar, having been on the map long before the country opened up, but other newly emerging destinations with their own unique heritage have their own challenges to face.

In the south, there are the water dwelling Moken people who are likely to suffer if the Mergui archipelago emerges as a tourist destination of the repute that some are tipping it to, while in the far north there are the fiercely proud Kachin. Ongoing conflict in the state means that it is unlikely to emerge as a tourist destination in the near future but, if and when it does, lessons can be learned from other groups that have gone before them.