The Myanmar Tourism Master Plan 2013-20 is diversifying the sector, while also ensuring that initiatives are implemented in a way that preserves and respects the country’s culture and natural beauty. There is rapidly growing global demand for ecotourism and sustainable travel, and this segment has emerged as a key area for investment in Myanmar. With its diverse flora and fauna, and broad array of landscapes and climate zones, the country is well placed to establish itself as a leading ecotourism destination. The strategic placement of eco-resorts could work in synergy with Myanmar’s drive to develop community-based tourism and help diversify the tourism offering. Successfully leveraging these opportunities will, however, require upgrades and improvements to the airport network.
While the segment is still in the early stages of its development, there has been a steady increase in the country’s ecotourism offering. The Myeik Archipelago in the Andaman Sea now houses at least two eco-resorts. While the country’s nature makes it ideal for as trekking, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling, it also has potential to develop conservation activities, such tree planting and reef cleaning.
“Adventure and ecotourism go together, with one leading to the other,” Oriol Mayol, business development manager at tour operator Pegu Travels, told OBG. “The most interesting regions of Myanmar for eco-resorts are its remote coastal and rural territories, which offer untouched natural beauty. However, there are challenges, as the southern coast is exposed to monsoons and the north is undeveloped and lacks accessibility.” Generating interest in Myanmar’s less visited regions would stimulate demand for a greater variety of accommodation options, providing opportunities to expand the supply of mid- and low-budget guest houses. Furthermore, the authorisation of homestays under the country’s new Tourism Law provides opportunities for residents in rural and remote areas to develop new revenue streams. Industry players have, however, highlighted that the new law does not go far enough in defining what constitutes an ecotourism project, meaning that greater clarity will likely be required.
The new Gambling Law, originally planned for May 2019 but not yet in effect by December, will pave the way for hotels in Yangon and Mandalay to open casinos for foreigners to gamble on their premises once the necessary implementing rules have been issued. Illegal casinos have been in operation for several years in Myanmar’s border regions and have been particularly popular with Chinese and Thai tourists. Considering the geographic proximity of these two markets, it is hoped that the new legislation will boost tourism, incentivise foreign investment and increase tax revenue.
The lack of inter-regional connectivity and long-haul routes to Europe remain an issue in Myanmar, presenting a major bottleneck to the development of the ecotourism and gambling segments. Encouragingly, there has been a recent uptick in aviation investment. Of the country’s 31 active domestic airports, 14 have been opened to investment, although the progress from market interest to real investment has been mixed. In August 2019 domestic player KBZ Group entered into a $60m agreement with Japanese firm Toyota Tsusho for the renovation of Heho Airport. In the following month the government approved a deal to upgrade Thandwe Airport in Rakhine to an international airport.
Demand for inter-regional airports is also being driven by a rise in domestic tourism. “The domestic market is increasing, with internal tourism contributing much of the demand,” U Moe San Aung, managing director at the local airline Air KBZ, told OBG. Real progress will depend upon large-scale projects that will take time to complete. There is also a need to increase airport service provision to provide improved access for Boeing and Airbus aeroplanes to allow more international flights to connect to domestic airports. In the short to medium term increased investment in upgrades at airports appears set to increase operational efficiency.