After Myanmar began the transition to democracy, international tourism was not the only segment that thrived. Following decades of restrictions on domestic movement, local people are now largely free to explore the country. This has allowed domestic tourists to travel to previously closed regions to visit family and to make pilgrimages to holy sites, such as pagodas and monasteries that used to be inaccessible.
Hitting the Road
Domestic tourism demand has therefore taken off in tandem with the international segment. In 2015, 2.46m Myanmar nationals took domestic trips, spending MMK733.24bn ($560.1m) in total. According to the Domestic Pilgrimages and Tour Operators Association, the number has since increased considerably, with 7.1m domestic travellers recorded from August 2016 to April 2017.
Domestic tourism comprises more than one-third of the sector’s total contribution to GDP. The World Tourism & Travel Council expects domestic travel expenditure to grow by 3.6% in 2017 to reach MMK1.7trn ($1.3bn), and then to rise by 5.5% per year to hit MMK2.9trn ($2.2bn) in 2027.
Myanmar has also recently introduced outbound tourism promotions. Around 3m citizens travel abroad for leisure and business each year, according to the Union of Myanmar Travel Association (UMTA).
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
Some of the most popular destinations for domestic travellers are the same as those chosen by foreign visitors: the well-known sites of Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. However, Myanmar travellers also like to visit beach resorts in the Bay of Bengal, such as Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung, and Kayin State’s scenic areas. Pilgrimage tours to temples and Mount Kyaiktiyo (the Golden Rock) in Mon State are also popular among locals, as are Dawei and Myeik, according to booking website Javago Myanmar.
“In the last three to four years, secondary and tertiary destinations have opened up, and domestic tourism is developing significantly,” Achim Munz, representative in Myanmar of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports local sustainable and responsible tourism, told OBG.
In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the designated ecotourism sites most likely to be visited by Myanmar visitors were Alaungdaw Kathapa, Indawgyi, Moeyungyi, Shwesettaw and Wetthikhan. “There are now bus routes to many rural areas and destinations, and local tour operators are increasingly focusing on domestic tourism. They prepare packages to all key destinations, not only to see relatives, but mainly for holidays, pilgrimages and to discover the country,” Munz said.
Mixing domestic demand with international arrivals has enabled hoteliers and tourism operators to fill in the gaps around the high season each year. This is a positive trend for the industry as a whole, because it increases demand during the low season for foreign arrivals: the second and third quarters of the year.
Filling a Gap
Domestic tourism is also fuelling demand for local online booking agencies, which emerged relatively recently when the country opened up to the internet. Norway’s Telenor Group established the first independent connection to the global internet in 2014. “Even in June, which is not part of the high season, we usually receive bookings,” Hugo Schleicher, managing director of Jovago Myanmar, said at a 2016 press conference. “It means that there is a boom in the number of travellers in September and onward when local people start travelling again.”
The number of tour agencies focusing on domestic travellers increased by around 300 in both 2014 and 2015, according to UMTA figures. The official number of tour agencies is unknown, but the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration’s website lists 2250 registered companies whose names identify them as travel agencies. However, some figures suggest the allure of package holidays may be wearing off, according to local operators citing falling numbers of bookings for package tours. “Myanmar people started to feel that they didn’t want to go on package tours and preferred to create their own travel itineraries,” Daw Ma Kay Khine Wint, founder of Yangon-based Royal Caravan Travel & Tours, told local media in 2017. Munz made a similar assessment. “There is a trend of independent travel, where travellers use their cars to tour the country,” he told OBG. However, it is still difficult to access some areas of the country without a package programme.
In the past, the tradition was for Myanmar travellers embarking on pilgrimages to stay at monasteries. However, as with so much in the country and the tourism sector, that seems to be evolving. “In terms of changing people’s mindset, domestic travellers prefer to stay at hotels instead of monasteries and guest houses,” U Myoe Gyi, vice-chairman of the Domestic Pilgrimages and Tour Operators Association, told local media in July 2017. “The number of pilgrims who go on tours has not declined even as [the number of] domestic operators [is] increasing, and the number of people who go with private arrangements is also growing.” The country has more than 650 domestic pilgrimage operators, according to the association, which calculated the number of domestic travellers by collecting figures from checkpoints in popular destination cities.
One destination where rising demand from both domestic and international visitors has been attracting investor interest is Ngapali Beach. With government plans to upgrade nearby Thwande Airport and increase electricity connectivity in the area, a growing number of hotels are expected to be built, according to a report by Colliers International.
Domestic visitors to Ngapali doubled in 2016, the report found, and these travellers have helped support Ngapali’s resorts during the low season. This pattern can be attributed in part to hoteliers offering monsoon season discounts, though a more reliable power supply has also allowed more hotels to stay open, according to Karlo Pobre, associate director of Colliers International. In 2016 occupancy rates in the low season were 30-40%, compared to the high season rates of 83-100%, according to the report.
The downside of increased tourism is that Ngapali’s once-pristine beaches are marred by increasing amounts of rubbish. Officials have warned local stakeholders that the future expansion of Thandwe Airport depends on whether the area can resolve its pollution and waste-management problems. “Your destiny is in your hands,” U Ohn Maung, minister of hotels and tourism, told a workshop on sustainable tourism in Ngapali in May 2017. The minister said the ministry would begin the airport expansion if improvements were made by 2018.
Myanmar’s neighbours are increasingly targeting the country as a source market for their own tourist destinations, as Myanmar travellers choose to travel abroad in growing numbers. The Tourism Authority of Thailand recently promoted the kingdom as a destination, with a slew of advertisements in the Myanmar language on social media.
In terms of outbound tourism, Myanmar tourists are most likely to visit other ASEAN countries that offer visa-free travel, U Hla Aye, vice-chairman of the UMTA, told local media. Malaysia is the only ASEAN country that requires Myanmar visitors to obtain a visa. Thailand is the most-visited destination by Myanmar travellers, followed by Singapore and Vietnam, according to U Hla Aye, who said there has also been a surge in travel to East Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and China, as well as to Europe. The launch of direct flights to these destinations has fuelled this trend, he said. To build on this demand and promote outbound tourism, Myanmar is prioritising holding international travel expositions, according to U Lin Htein, leader of the UMTA’s outbound task force.
“Myanmar is a large country the size of France, with a population of 52m people, and there is a great diversity of cultures and environments to discover,” Munz told OBG. “Domestic tourism will be the base for the development of tourism infrastructure.”
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