YANGON, Myanmar — By Myanmar standards, 2010 was a golden year for tourism. Those working in the sector said they hoped recent political developments might make it easier to attract still more foreigners although there was not much faith in the military regime’s appetite for change.
An estimated 300,000 foreign tourists visited the country last year, government sources said, a 30 per-cent increase over 2009 and better than the previous record from 2006, the official Visit Myanmar Year. But even the recent increase does not do justice to the potential of the country, whose abundant natural and cultural charms should make it one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia.
”The amount of 300,000 tourists is not too big compared with neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, even Laos,” said Tin Tun Aung, general secretary of the Myanmar Travel Association. Last year, an estimated 15 million tourists visited Thailand, 17 million went to Malaysia, and 1 million travelled to Laos.
Myanmar’s tourism sector has had its fair share of hard knocks in recent years. It has been hit by the same phenomena as the rest of the world: the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003; the tsunami of 2004; high oil prices in 2008; and the global financial meltdown in 2009. But Myanmar, also called Burma, has also had its own special hiccups.
There was the brutal military crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September, 2007, and then in May, 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 138,000 people and left much of the Irrawaddy Delta in shambles.
A political stigma is also attached to visiting Myanmar, which has been under military dictatorship since 1962.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democracy icon, previously opposed foreign tourists visiting her country as she threw support behind economic sanctions imposed on her country by Western democracies. She has since mellowed her stance on sanctions, saying they should be limited to those that have a minimal negative impact on Myanmar’s people.
Suu Kyi was freed from seven years of house detention November 13, six days after Myanmar held its first general election in two decades, but it remained unclear how the recent political developments would impact tourism.
”I don’t think that tourist movements have much to do with politics, really,” said Luzi Matzig, director of the Bangkok-based Asian Trails company, which specializes in tours to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.
”If a tourist wants to go to Mandalay or Pagan, it’s good to hear that ‘The Lady” (Suu Kyi) has been freed, but will that influence his decision to visit Myanmar? I don’t think so,” Matzig said.
Myanmar tour operators attributed last year’s good performance more to a relaxation in visa regulations than political developments. ”One of the reasons why the tourism industry had a good year in 2010 was because of the introducing of arrival visas,” said Nay Zin Latt, vice chairman of the Myanmar Hoteliers Association.