Media trips showcasing Myanmar’s key tourist destinations appear to be winning over foreign press, with the industry newspaper Travel Trade Gazette on September 26 giving the country the tick of approval.
TTG Asia reporter Sirima Eamtako visited Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake in early September and “found them rich with natural, cultural and historical sites”.
As well as extolling the country’s leading attractions, the article also touched on the negative way Myanmar is often portrayed in the media. Industry leaders say this has contributed to a significant drop in tourist arrivals despite – as Sirima Eamtako put it – “key tourism destinations being unaffected” by recent events.
“The issues of infectious diseases and lack of hygiene, as reported by some media, were unfounded. … The destination deserves a break.”
Sirima Eamtako was in Myanmar from September 6 to 11, along with several other travel writers, on a media familiarisation trip jointly organised by the Myanmar Marketing Committee (MMC), Union of Myanmar Travel Association (UMTA) and Myanmar Hoteliers Association (MHA).
A second trip was organised from September 27 to October 1, which brought two more travel writers to Myanmar to visit major tourist sites.
“Among the six journalists we invited, one travel writer and one photo editor accepted and came to Myanmar,” said Daw Su Su Tin, the chairperson of MMC and the managing director of Exotissimo Travel Company.
“Four others declined to come because of the recent bomb blast in downtown Yangon,” she said.
One of those who made the trip was Michael Spencer, a freelance travel writer for Beyond and Compass travel magazines.
“I’ve been to Myanmar many times before and during those visits I saw many tourists in Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.
The other visitor, photo editor Lester Ledesma from Singapore-based Ink Publications, said he had also been to Myanmar before.
“I’ve had a lot of good experiences in Myanmar. This country has many good things to attract tourists. If accessibility were improved, and more international flights were offered, it would be a significant boost for the tourism sector,” he said.
The plan to show off Myanmar’s major tourism destinations to the foreign press was one of several initiatives agreed upon by government ministries and industry bodies at a September 9 meeting in Nay Pyi Taw.
At the meeting, the government also agreed to remove travel restrictions to Chaungtha, Ngwe Saung and Thanlyin, investigate the possibility of an English-language travel publication and speed up visa applications at Myanmar’s foreign embassies.
Local travel industry leaders are hoping that the press trips will dispel myths about the safety of travelling in Myanmar, and last week’s article is the first indication that the plan may work.
Daw Su Su Tin, told TTG Asia: “Myanmar’s tourism is badly affected by the news in the global media, which gives the wrong idea about this country to the rest of the world. But the fact that it is a safe country and its key tourism destinations are unaffected by Nargis have been unfairly omitted.”
“By focusing on Nargis, the international media is inadvertently causing another disaster for the tourism industry,” she added in an interview with The Myanmar Times last week.
“All the people who earn their livelihoods from tourism at a grassroots level are having problems as a result,” she said.
Exotissimo Travel Myanmar has been at the front of efforts to revive the struggling tourism sector. The company last month began offering tours of the cyclone-ravaged Ayeyarwady delta as well as expedited visa on arrival (VOA) service.
Daw Su Su Tin said business between January and August was just 40 percent compared to the same period last year, and September’s business was about 60pc behind.
According to government statistics, tourist arrivals at Yangon International Airport from April 1 to June 22 totalled 15,204, a drop of 47.59 percent on the same period last year.
The downturn has been felt particularly hard at both Inle Lake and Bagan, where tourism income is more reliant on foreign tourist arrivals. Last week’s TTG Asia article noted that in early September “there were very few tourists versus an assorted number of souvenir vendors, horse-cart riders, long-tailed boat owners and tourism-related traders … whose livelihoods relied on tourism earnings”.
But while bad press has meant few tourist arrivals, it is unclear whether good reviews of Myanmar’s prize destinations will be enough to entice reluctant travellers back. Essential to this is getting travel agents back on board and offering travel packages to the country. UMTA vice chairman and Myanmar Voyages managing director, U Thet Lwin Toh, said bookings for October and November were still slow.
“Bookings tend to come in last minute because most clients are taking a wait-and-see approach. Most bookings now are also coming from FITs (Foreign Independent Travellers) as many overseas tour operators have taken Myanmar off their brochures, citing clients’ lack of interest,” he said.
Despite not seeing any significant improvement yet, U Thet Lwin Toh welcomed the decision to bring foreign press into the country and described the other initiatives agreed upon at the September 9 meeting as “encouraging”.
“For sustainable development of tourism, we need strong media promotion that can show the situation on the ground and what we are trying to do to promote tourism in the country,” he told The Myanmar Times. “It is imperative that our industry recovers as soon as possible because the current situation is severely affecting not just tourism operators but also many other business sectors.”