Remember Visit Myanmar Year? Back in 1996 the regime was touting its country as a new Southeast Asian destination for package tourists and those looking for an exotic alternative to more familiar and popular countries in the region. That year it targeted half-a-million visitors but fell far short at just over 300,000, which by the government’s own count was still around 80 per cent more than the previous tally.
Over a decade later, and the official figure for visitor visa entrants in 2008-09 to the end of January is less than it was a decade before, at a measly quarter-million. According to a recent news report on Department of Immigration and National Registration statistics, 264,639 persons entered on visitor visas in the first ten months of the financial year; a fall from the previous total of 363,976. Out of those, four in five declared themselves tourists while the remainder came for other reasons. Only about 70,000 came via one of the dozen or so flights in and out each day, while most came by land from neighboring territories.
For a country of over 50 million, with the largest landmass of mainland Southeast Asia and unique natural and manmade scenery, situated between the world’s two most populated states and alongside another that has for decades been at the forefront of the global tourism industry, however you look at it, an average of 20,000 tourists per month is pathetic. Even if the statistics aren’t telling the whole picture, it sure isn’t rosy.
While the worldwide economic downturn and recent problems in Thailand will have had some effects, and boycott Myanmar campaigners can also claim a certain amount of success–if it can be called that–the causes of the low numbers are for the most part homemade.
A drop from almost 450,000 during 2006-07 came after the twin international public relations disasters in the wake of the 2007 protests and Cyclone Nargis. But prior to that year, throughout the decade the official figure never exceeded 400,000 anyway: still ridiculously low considering that more people than that flock to the beaches and temples of Thailand every fortnight.
Persistent obstacles to higher numbers include cost and mismanagement. Myanmar is a more expensive and less convenient place to visit than its successful neighbor to the east. Even Cambodia, which now reportedly attracts around 2 million visitors annually, has made things easy for people wanting to see the ruins at Angkor, with up to half of its tourist arrivals coming direct to the temples by plane on short side trips from Thailand or Vietnam. Most of Myanmar’s hotels are of a lower standard than those in its competitors, domestic travel is not particularly easy, and there is less variety and availability of food. Roads are in atrocious disrepair, unless you happen to be going to Naypyidaw, in which case you’re probably not on a holiday. Even places like Chaungthar Beach are hard to reach. Unless you’re an adventure tourist who isn’t put off by military dictatorship and doesn’t mind spending more time and money to get where you want to go then you probably won’t be interested. If you are, then you aren’t the type of tourist whom the government wants anyway, although you won’t be denied a visa; it’ll take anyone it can get.
While visitor numbers decrease, the number of foreigners working in the country has increased, and perhaps it’s a sign of the times that empty and bankrupted hotels are being turned into private hospitals so that Korean businessmen and their wealthy local partners don’t have to send their kids to Bangkok or Singapore every time that one of them gets the sniffles.
Another trend is the proliferating number of overseas employment agencies. As the authorities have made it easier for citizens to get out of the country, more locals are looking for work elsewhere. Young graduates who in the 1990s studied English, French and Japanese with a view to getting jobs as hotel staff and tour guides are now instead applying for places abroad. There are no reliable figures on foreign remittances to Myanmar, partly because there are millions who have gone overseas through the backdoor, but clearly the country is today earning a lot more from its people out in the world than it is from the people of the world who have come to visit it.