While tourism has been identified as a crucial component of Myanmar’s future economic development, the government faces an enormous challenge in realising its ambitions. Not only must it modernise its creaky infrastructure and develop tourism products to attract and encourage travellers to return, it must also address a talent shortage that makes it difficult for tourism-related businesses to find and retain the staff they need. Moreover, it must do so while meeting its own commitments to developing an industry that is sustainable and treats its workers responsibly.
“Upgrading human resources is critical for improving the competitiveness and employment opportunities in the sector,” the Overseas Development Institute noted in a report in April 2014. “An adequately skilled workforce is imperative to maximising the benefits of the tourism industry, including contributing to socioeconomic development, job creation and business opportunities.”
In that report, a group of industry insiders identified a number of major problems: a shortage of middle managers and skilled workers, fuelling rising wages and a war for talent; a brain drain as Myanmar’s citizens leave for better paid jobs overseas, exacerbated by a global scramble for talent across the tourism industry; and questionable training standards and poorly structured training programmes in both the private and public sectors. Two years on, tourism executives told OBG that the situation remains challenging, even as the government moves to address skills shortages.
The Strand Hotel in Yangon, which reopened in November after a six-month closure for renovation, kept all its employees on the payroll during construction, using the opportunity to enhance the team’s skills; in the interim, a small restaurant at its sister hotel, the Inya Lake, gave kitchen and waiting staff a chance to polish their service expertise.
Jochen Meissner at Uncharted Horizons says he has devised his own training courses for the staff he hires because the official tour guide courses are inappropriate for the kind of adventurous trips his company offers, particularly in Chin state, a newly emerging destination. Meissner’s training includes first aid, and prepares guides to answer the wide variety of questions that the independent travellers who join his tours are likely to ask.
Travel and tourism directly supported 661,000 jobs in 2015, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, with that number expected to increase by 3.6% in 2016. By 2026, the group estimates the industry will directly employ 1,117,000 people in Myanmar (3.4% of total employment). The Tourism Master Plan that was released in 2013 and will run until 2020 included ambitious targets for the expansion of the industry, but also recognised the “significant strain” facing Myanmar in providing the level of service demanded by international tourists. Noting the reforms taking place in the school system, and the expected surge in demand for properly trained workers in tourism, it stressed there was a “pressing need to develop and implement a comprehensive national plan for tourism human resource development.”
The plan estimates the food and beverage sector will have the greatest demand for workers by 2020 (748,901), followed by transport services (299,560) and accommodation (224,670).
The recently released Labour Force Survey gives an indication of how much needs to be done to help Myanmar citizens to work effectively in service industries such as tourism, and why many employers struggle to find staff with the right skills.
The survey found that only 6.5% of the working population had completed high school, rising to 11.1% in urban areas and dropping to 4.4% in rural communities. Only 5.8% of working-age people are graduates, but only a tiny percentage of those who do not go on to a degree-level education have received any kind of vocational training.
The Union of Myanmar Travel Association, which represents more than 700 of the country’s travel and tour operators, has been running training programmes for its members since the country began to open up to international visitors. Its courses help small and medium-sized travel agents with marketing and airline ticketing, particularly in terms of integrating systems with online technology.
It also encourages its members to join courses provided and sponsored by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which are designed to support the integration of ASEAN under the ASEAN Economic Community. The association notes that as Singapore tourism standards are among the best in the region, these courses are hugely popular.
The Singapore connection is also evident at the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI), which offers hospitality training to school leavers, including internships with the Parkroyal Yangon and the possibility of future employment at the hotel. Some of the hotel’s existing staff also work as trainers at the institute, while the opening of the Pan Pacific in Yangon, a sister hotel to the Parkroyal, will further expand opportunities available for students at SMVTI.
The first graduates from a four-year tourism degree that was introduced by Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in 2012, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, should join the workforce in 2017. The degree programme is in addition to a postgraduate diploma that was started in 2006 in Yangon and Mandalay. The Ministry also offers a number of short courses, including language training, guiding and tourism management.
Nevertheless, a large proportion of workers in Myanmar, including in tourism, work informally, which means they are unlikely to benefit from training opportunities. It also leaves them at greater risk of discrimination and exploitation at work, according to a sector-wide assessment by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) in 2015.
The nature of tourism – a labour-intensive industry creating a huge variety of skilled and unskilled jobs – complicates further the government’s commitment to a “responsible” tourism sector that ensures local communities benefit from the industry’s expansion and workers’ rights are protected.
The assessment by the MCRB found basic wages in the sector to be extremely low, especially for tour guides – often employed on a freelance basis – and low-level staff in hotels and restaurants. It also found staff working long hours, notably drivers who reported they were on the road from 4am to 10pm as well as being on 24-hour call. Such long hours are a safety risk, the report added. “Public institutions related to tourism lack an understanding of the sector’s dynamics and tend to be very fragmented. There isn’t a single voice guiding any sort of comprehensive vision for the tourism sector,” Marcus Allender, co-founder and business development director at Pegu Travels, told OBG.
Yet the MCRB noted that there had been positive developments, with vocational training centres established not only in Yangon, but also in the Inle Lake region. Some hotels are also offering language training, as well as other courses during the low season. Trade unions have been established to improve working conditions.
A review of the Myanmar Tourism Law, which functions as part of the Tourism Master Plan, is likely to address labour standards, while the Responsible Tourism Policy has the construction of national hospitality training centres as one of its objectives. “It is important to empower and engage host communities in tourism skills training, planning and management,” the Tourism Master Plan noted. “In addition to formal education and training, NGOs can play an important role in facilitating the transfer of grassroots knowledge.”
The non-profit Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute offers training in areas such as destination management, heritage tourism and corporate social responsibility initiatives. It also conducts research to help industry and policymakers plan initiatives more effectively. Tourism is not the only industry facing the challenge of recruiting skilled staff. But while progress has been slow, the government has shown a willingness to work with the industry and civil society to achieve those goals.
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