Under the military regime, even if a tourist decided to ignore the National League for Democracy’s call for a boycott and visit Myanmar, getting a visa required a number of trips to the nearest embassy and considerable patience. These days, it can all be done online in a matter of hours, as the country turns to technology to help reduce paperwork and increase efficiency.
The e-visa initiative reflects the government’s commitment to boosting tourism, which is expected to be one of Myanmar’s main sources of future economic growth. Tourism revenue grew 19% in 2015 to $2.1bn, representing about 4% of GDP, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank. About a quarter of the 1.18m people who arrived through Yangon International Airport in 2015 were independent travellers, meaning those who often use the internet to research destinations and make bookings.
Citizens of more than 100 countries can apply for an e-visa, which costs $50 for a single visit, and was recently expanded to allow visitors to enter the country via land borders as well as the international airports in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw.
The government now aims to extend the programme so that foreign visitors can apply for a multiple-entry tourist visa valid for between three and 12 months. While ASEAN’s 10 member states have been discussing the introduction of visa-free travel for citizens within the grouping for a decade, without much success, Myanmar and Singapore have agreed to allow visa-free entry for visits of no more than 30 days starting from December 1, 2016. Myanmar also has preliminary visa-free agreements with Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
The government is also streamlining the licensing process for operators. An online portal for the travel and tourism trade was set up in July 2016, handling licence applications and renewals with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism for hotels, tour companies, tour guides and tourist transportation providers. In 2015 the ministry licensed 1946 companies, of which 39 were joint ventures and only one was a foreign company. There were also 5630 licences issued to tour guides, as well as 486 licences for transport providers. With licence application and renewal moving online, the ministry cut service charges by 50%. A hotel licence previously cost between MMK200,000 ($160) and MMK1.9m ($1540), depending on the size of the hotel.
The loosening of visa restrictions and the reduction in charges are part of a wider government commitment to reducing bureaucracy and creating a more amenable environment for business. Its efforts helped lift the country 10 places in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” survey in 2016 to 167th out of 189 countries, showing most progress in the ease of setting up a business.
Industry players, however, would like to see the licensing regime liberalised further. “The government’s job is not to stop people from doing business,” U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, joint secretary-general of Myanmar Tourism Federation, told OBG. “It is to guide, and to encourage people to set up new businesses.”
Broader investment regulations, meanwhile, are being refined to make Myanmar a more attractive destination for investment. The Foreign Investment Law 2012 allows foreigners sole control of hotel properties of at least three stars (Myanmar classification) and to invest in tour companies, travel agencies and budget hotels with a local partner.
Efforts are also under way to address service shortcomings, raise hospitality standards to the level of Myanmar’s neighbours and weed out illegal operators. The ministry is working with partners including Swiss Contact on the Hotel Training Initiative through its vocational training development programme, while the International Labour Organisation is providing assistance to improve national standards of tour guide training.
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