Interview: Daw Su Su Tin

In what ways can states and regions take advantage of policy decentralisation?

DAW SU SU TIN: Individual states and regions have now increased jurisdiction over their tourism agenda. This is a broadly positive development, although some regional ministers have more experience in this area than others. For instance, the chief ministers of Mandalay, Kayah and Tanintharyi are examples of very strong leaders driving good policy initiatives, and are all working to utilise their natural resources. This illustrates the increased capacity for destination management in these locales granted by decentralisation.

There is also more scope to organise and leverage events and festivals in individual states and regions. The central ministry still plays the important role of interacting with international-level tourism bodies and initiating nationwide policy, but it lacks the funding and capacity to do so effectively. What Myanmar really needs is a professionally run tourism authority that is a part of the sector, and that engages with it.

How has the tourist profile changed in recent years, and what initiatives are in place to attract more?

TIN: Myanmar experienced a huge increase in Chinese and Thai visitors in 2019, as well as 24% more Italians due to a new direct charter flight route. Unfortunately, we experienced a general decline of 7-10% in European and US tourist arrivals, though this is a far smaller decrease than the 20% decrease we saw in 2018. While overall arrival numbers have rebounded, we do not expect sector income to rise dramatically, since it is not the high-yield market that has increased.

New initiatives are in place to attract Western tourists, such as relaxed visa restrictions. The trend for EU visitors is a move away from package tours and towards independent travelling. For this group, visa on arrival and e-visa systems make it easy to venture into Myanmar from Thailand on a more ad-hoc basis. People are also increasingly likely to book directly, and it is important to accommodate this and provide extra services, such as self-guiding. An emphasis on what unique attractions Myanmar holds is essential for this. There is a wealth of undeveloped natural resources.

Heritage is another tourism growth area, and there are assets that have been untouched for decades that are ready to form part of a sustainable tourism experience. For instance, the ancient city of Bagan was recently inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is expected to increase visitor numbers. Although this is great news for the area, some investors will inevitably get caught out by the new rules or the increased enforcement of existing laws, and some hotels will have to relocate away from the temples.

For now, one focus of private sector operators in the area is the reduction of pollution and littering. Waste management systems must be formalised, and we are helping to inform the regional government about problematic areas. There is also a strong private sector movement to avoid the use of plastics.

What opportunities exist for investors?

TIN: Many investors see the currently depressed market as an opportunity. There are more hotel rooms due to come on-line over the next few years, and the banking sector is asking for repayment on many loans that it extended for real estate projects. When combined, these factors leave some players wishing to exit the sector, while others are eager to make daring investments. However, investors must be ready to commit and help the sector progress as a whole.

The determining factor is budget, for both the public and private sectors. The Myanma Tourism Bank was opened by the sector to tackle this problem, although it is still in the early stages of implementation. In some neighbouring markets, international institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank, sometimes provide low-interest loans, and this is something the Myanmar market would benefit from.