Tourism Make-Over for Pariah State

Thai and Burmese travel officials are working together to promote Burma as a travel destination, despite its being considered a pariah state due to Rangoon’s military government and human rights abuses. Before the Burmese tourist industry can thrive, however, tourism experts say the country will have to develop its infrastructure, eliminate its two-tier exchange rate, and develop a two-part tourism authority which would be dedicated to protecting the country’s culture and environment as well as promoting tourism. Thailand has a vested interest in the success of Burma’s tourist industry, observers say, because an improvement in the Burmese economy could, in turn, help the Thai economy. – YaleGlobal

Tourism Make-Over for Pariah State

Marasri Boonroj
Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Against considerable odds, a group of top Thai and Burmese tourism officials believe they can shift the military-run state into becoming a key tourist destination.

Leading tourism industry experts from both countries gathered in Rangoon recently to exchange views over how that can be done for a country that has been shunned by foreign visitors because of objections to the way the country is run.

Though the forum did not touch on taboo issues here such as politics and human rights, they were able to address the “nuts and bolts” industry issues and came up with suggestions on how its tourism potential can be to enhanced.

“In order to open up to the world market, its tourism must be developed to include key areas such building a sustainable economy, a good environment and quality of life,” said Thai human resources expert Professor Chira Hongladarom, at the workshop which was attended by 60 Burmese tourism officials.

Chira said Burma lacked adequate infrastructure and living accommodation to take in a huge influx of foreign tourists. The country’s financial sector must therefore be committed to supporting the move to expand its tourism sector, he said.

He also urged an end to the two-tier exchange rates. The officially rate offers seven kyats to the dollar while the black market rate fetches between 930 and 940 kyats.

A Burmese participant, who asked not to be named, said many Burmese tourist companies use the black market rate in the anticipation that the kyat would rise in order to sustain a profit.

But the obstacles to cultural and environmental development will be a tough nut to crack.

While Thailand has its tourism authority (TAT), which goes flat out to attract visitors, Burma has yet to employ such a body to boost arrivals.

Chira suggested Burma forms two units – one to monitor the industry and prevent the destruction of its environment and culture; and the other to market the country abroad.

According to one government minister, Burma is not looking to go down the same road as Thailand.

Burmese Deputy Minister for Hotels and Tourism Brig-General Aye Myint Kyu warned that it was vital the industry’s expansion plan does not overlook cultural sensitivities.

Myint Kyu says the country has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples as well as many other important heritage sites.

“We have to keep in mind all that. The more we are developed, the more we have to preserve our culture,” he said.

Chira suggested that Burma could consider a joint promotion scheme with Thailand to sell the two countries as one destination.

Executive director of the TAT’s Human Resource Department La-iard Silanoi, said that the joint promotion could be done as Thailand currently holds cooperation ties with Indo-China. Given the call from the international community to avoid Burma, accusing the military state of gross human rights violation, such a scheme was likely to generated heated debate in Thailand as well as abroad.

However, U Moe Kyaw of the UMFCCI, said the two countries can work together by taking one step at a time.

“I would like Thais to see that Myanmar [Burma] is not a dangerous place. I want Thais to look, not at the country, but the people in it,” he said.

“I’m a firm believer that if you make Myanmar [Burma] rich, it would make Thailand, our big neighbour, even richer,” he said.

Thai Ambassador Suphot Dhirakaosal said the Thai government remained committed to helping the neighbouring country enhance its infrastructure to help tourism and other industries.

Suphot said he sees Burma as a potential “strategic partner” in many areas, including hydropower energy, saying strong relations with Rangoon will also boost Thai ties with India and China.

Rangoon has over recent years drifted away from Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) while strengthening its ties with China, India and Pakistan, as part of a strategy to be less dependent on any one country.

How this strategy is played out with Thailand and the rest of Asean members seeking opportunities there remains to be seen.

The following are some facts about tourism in Burma courtesy of the Union of Myanmar [Burma] Travel Association:

- There are currently 576 travel and tour companies in Burma (One foreign firm, 18 joint ventures and 557 local firms).

- There are 10,275 employees working to service a total of 17,039 rooms at 563 hotels in Burma.

- There are 181 motor vehicles, three river cruise ships, 173 motorboats, 143 yachts and a hot-air balloon with operating licences.

- Tourist arrivals to Burma in 2003 numbered 205,610 and generating US$116 million (Bt4.8 billion) in receipts.

(c) Nation Multimedia Group

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