Business is ‘booming’ but challenges linger, says tourism industry expert

As an industry observer, it’s hard to find somebodywith a better perspective of Myanmar’s tourism sector than U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar. He runs a successful travel and tour company(All Asia Exclusive Travel Co), chairs the Myanmar Tourism Marketing body, is joint secretary general of the Myanmar Tourism Federation and is an executive committeemember for Union of Myanmar Travel Association.

“One way or another I’m largely involved in a lot of tourism organisations,” U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar says in the meeting room of his office near Yangon’s Thuwanna Stadium. He adds that with the world’s attention focused on Myanmar, it’s a good time to be in the tourism sector: “Business is booming.”

But the surge in interest in Myanmar is coming at a cost for travellers because accommodation and planes are overbooked, resulting in high prices for hotel rooms and airline tickets.

“For the majority of tourism operators it’s becoming an obstacle to selling Myanmar as a tourist destination because of those higher hotel rates and airfares,” U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar says.
“But on the other hand it depends how you market your products. If you’re competing in a mass market it’s quite impossible to market Myanmar because it’s getting more expensive to travel here. But if you’re targeting a niche market, where people are looking for exclusive service, nice boutique hotels and very personalised programs, then you’re able to survive despite the higher costs,” he adds.

“You need to be unique, you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Specialist companies can make more business because they can offer exclusive services and it’s easier for them to keep ahead of their competitors.”

However, it will be at least 12 months and possibly as much as three years before Myanmar can offer more affordable rooms in key destinations such as Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.

“I think it will take at least one more year for room prices to come down,” he says. “Novotel [hotels] are under construction in Yangon and Inle Lake and there are a number of hotels to be opened in November 2014, so we have to give at least one more year. By mid-2015 the rates will be normalised and by 2016 Myanmar will be more ready to take more arrivals at more reasonable rates.”

U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar said Myanmar’s domestic airline operators also face a battle to bring better service at a cheaper price to customers. At present it is cheaper to fly to Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur than to Dawei, in southeastern Tanintharyi Region.

For the airlines to make money and bring down price, U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar said they must be better organised.

“I have some close friends in Myanmar’s airline industry and most of them are not making a profit,” he says. “I think it has to do with management. They have to manage their businesses in a more streamlined way … [and] they need to manage their aircraft in a more profitable way to save costs and at the same time to be more operationally viable.”

“Most of them are giving out new schedules for the next two or three weeks. It shows that they are not doing it well. In order to run an airline profitably they have to be able to stick to their schedules and keep their load factor, for both passengers and cargo, optimum.”

He adds that it’s not uncommon to see aircraft grounded by a lack of spare parts or pilots, even in the middle of peak tourism season.

“That’s not acceptable. As an airline operator they should keep the aircraft in working order as much as possible, otherwise they are losing money. They need a more efficient way of managing their aircraft and pilots,” he says.

However, despite that the increased costs U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar said it has become much easier to sell Myanmar to the world – partly because National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi puts the country in the media spotlight every time she goes abroad.

“It’s a lot easier to promote Myanmar nowadays because we have free publicity whenever we see that the ‘Lady’ goes abroad to attend a ceremony or something else. It’s free publicity for Myanmar,” he says.

The change to a more democratic government has also brought a shift in the regime’s handling of the press, U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar says.
“In the past whenever there was a political event, like a demonstration, there was always immediate bad publicity for Myanmar. But at the time the former administration was very introverted, and they wanted to shut off all bad news. But these days the government is transparent; whatever is happening they let the world know so that we can show what is really happening … the news agencies cannot distort the news any more. It’s also easier for us to take corrective actions when it comes to the image of Myanmar and give a brighter picture of Myanmar.”

Another change that has benefited the industry since the Thein Sein government took over in 2011 and signed peace agreements with some ethnic groups, has been the easing of travel restrictions to certain areas – notably Mon and Kayin states.

“I believe Kayin and Mon states are ready to be developed as tourist destinations because now peace is prevailing in those two regions. And the border gates are open, so there is a big potential for tourism to prosper in those two regions,” U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar says.

“The government has changed its attitude towards tourism and we are now in the limelight as a prioritised business. It is now much easier to get travel permits to let travellers go to areas that were previously off limits.”

Another region with potential for tourism development is Chin State but U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar says this will take time, although it might appeal to some hardy travellers and eco tourists.

“There is potential in Chin State but in order to develop tourism you need accessibility, accommodation, amenities and auxiliary services. The most important of these is accessibility and without a proper road or access, it’s very difficult to develop a tourism destination and Chin State is an example of this.”

The relatively unexplored parts of Chin State might hold an appeal for tourists who are willing to forgo luxury for unspoilt landscapes and forests.

“We need to make sure that the government is involved in managing this type of tourism, especially that the Ministry of Forestry and Environmental Affairs will play a very important role in making it happen, along with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.

“Most eco tourists are fully aware of the saying: ‘Don’t take anything from the destination apart from photos. Don’t leave anything but your footsteps.’ They tend to be those who care for the environment and nature.”

However, U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar said tourism must benefit the communities in areas visited by tourists, not least because it is the local people who make Myanmar a memorable experience.

“People who have visited here bring home memories of the people rather than the destination,” he says.

“The ministry has a policy drawn up that reflects that the communities at tourist destinations are very important. They should benefit from the tourism industry, and take part in the development of tourism.

“But we also have to educate those communities in order to sustain the business because they are very important players in tourism development.”


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