Tour agency prepares to ride the boom

“IT’S not very difficult to set up a tour agency, but it’s difficult to succeed,” says Sabei Aung, managing director of Nature Dream Travels and Tours Co, one of pioneering travel agencies in Myanmar.

Sabei Aung opened the shop in 2002, after working for eight years at Diethelm Travel. She was then highly confident of success. While studying an MBA course at a local university, she learnt about capacity measurement ruler and she started to measure people at her company. The ruler revealed to her that she was more capable than others.

However, she had to learn the hard way. Her company, Nature Dream, had difficulties in finding customers as the number of visitors to Myanmar then was well below 1 million per annum.

Nature Dream welcomed the first three clients from Russia in 2003, following an exhibition at ITB Berlin, the world’s leading travel trade show. It was her plan to target travellers from Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The business went quiet again in 2004, forcing her business partner to quit. At one time, she had only US$50 in her pocket and had to borrow from her relative to keep operations running. Only in October that year, her company won a tour group and she expanded to cover car rental service also.

More travellers from Russia and CIS helped Nature Dream break even in 2006. And the situation improved significantly after Myanmar reintegrated with the world in 2011. The number of tourists to Myanmar surged to 3.08 million in 2014 and 4.5 million in 2015.

Now, among nearly 1,900 travel agents, Nature Dream is the biggest travel agent for the CIS market, catering to about 6,000 tourists a year. From zero staff in 2002, her company now employs 50 for offices in Yangon, Mandalay and Inle. The annual revenue peaked in 2012, at US$1.4 million.

However, fresh trouble lay ahead.

“We mainly focused on Russian clients, as we were pioneers in the Russian market. For the time being, our business is going down with the decline in Russia’s economy. Now we are also eyeing the US and Scandinavian markets,” she said.

About 20 per cent of customers currently are non-Russians.

Sabei Aung noted that though the United States had lifted most sanctions against Myanmar, tour agencies in the US are still advised against arranging trips to Myanmar.

Yangon and Mandalay have been major destinations for foreign travellers. Yet, she realised that many did not want to return due to poor infrastructure and facilities in the country. Now, some clients who are attracted to the oriental are shifting to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, she said.

She is convinced that the prospects are bright following the victory of the National League for Democracy in the November 2015 election. For now, her company is prepared for a boom. A survey has been carried out to find out what potential travellers would like to do and places they would like to see in Myanmar.

The initial findings are interesting, she said. “They are asking for new destinations.”

Targeting 7.5 million visitors in 2020, Myanmar’s Hotels and Tourism Ministry is set to complete its master plan, which includes infrastructure expansion and resources development/conservation.

According to World Travels and Tourism Council, tourism income contributed 3.1 per cent to Myanmar’s gross domestic product in 2014, a 2.1 per cent growth year on year. The industry employed 1.13 million in 2014, compared to 823,600 in the previous year.

Source: The Nation

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