Interview: Frank Janmaat

How does Myanmar’s tourism sector compare to those of other emerging markets?

FRANK JANMAAT: Myanmar offers advantages over a lot of other countries in the region. Many visitors had been waiting for the sanctions to be lifted and for the country to open up. For the time being we receive the experienced tourist; mass, leisure tourism is not yet interested in Myanmar. The uniqueness lies in the fact that the country, in the eyes of potential visitors, is still undiscovered and mysterious. The combination of virgin beaches, mountains for trekking and its historic and cultural heritage could make the country one of the more popular holiday destinations in the region.

Tourism is still very much a seasonal industry. October to April is high season, the rest of the year is the off-season. Yangon is the only area which seems to escape this to a certain extent; up-country destinations are suffering from low occupancy and resulting low income. However, Myanmar can be an attractive destination in the monsoon period. The weather is cooler, the scenery is much greener and there are fewer tourists around than in the dry period. In addition, there are large parts of the country which are not hit so bad as far as the monsoon rains are concerned.

In what way can Myanmar sustain the very high interest and expectations of foreign visitors?

FRANK: Due to the lack of receiving capacity, it makes sense that we do not concentrate on bringing the maximum number of visitors possible, but that we target the high-yield segment instead. Attracting high-yield tourists comes with the obligation that quality and service are up to the high level expected by these visitors. There is still work to be done here. Over the past few years, tourism in Myanmar has been stable at approximately 275,000 international airport arrivals per year. Obtaining a visa is an important matter and I hope that in the near future the procedures will be simplified so that visitors can get their visas upon arrival without too much trouble, as this improves our appeal.

What risks does Myanmar face from increasing tourist arrivals and what steps would mitigate these?

FRANK: Myanmar has seen spectacular growth in the number of international visitors over the past two to three years. Forecasts project continuing high numbers for the near future. This is good news for the country, hoteliers and others related to the tourism industry. After decades of neglect and a lack of long-term planning, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has taken responsibility for working out a strategic plan for what might prove to be, in the future, one of the more important economic sectors in the country. The risk of a negative impact to the lifestyle of the community is minimal, for the time being, because the number of visitors is still too low – 40 times fewer then Thailand, for instance. I hope it will stay like this. One of the major attractions of Myanmar is that the local citizens have a more natural and less aggressive attitude than those in countries where tourism has been developed over a longer period. I hope we can avoid the negative changes in our cultural identity that have been experienced elsewhere. The actual risk posed by the increasing number of tourists is the imbalance of supply and demand. Insufficient hotel capacity, little diversity in destinations and untrained staff are the sector’s key challenges. The prices in Myanmar for hotel rooms to transport and excursions, for instance, have seen an incredible increase over the last few years. Hotel accommodation has gone up by 400%, and in some hotels even more. If the growth in arrivals continues at this pace, we will reach a point in the near future that the country cannot handle the influx of visitors any more. This may lead to negative publicity, unsatisfied tourists and a risk of uncontrollable growth of “unofficial” accommodation providers. Visitors in general do not mind spending money as long as they are satisfied with the quality of the products offered. Unfortunately, a lot of the hotels are in the same state as they were a few years ago – staff training and renovations have not been done, or even planned.