Holidaymakers currently stuck by violence from the previous year will not be allowed to return until all infrastructure is in place
Myanmar is planning to reopen to tourism in early 2022. But who will go?
Myanmar expects to resume tourism operations in its south-east Asia region, including neighbouring Thailand, within two years, following last year’s Rohingya army-led violence.
Tourism is one of Myanmar’s main industry sectors and brings in almost $1bn (£766m) per year, while the country’s economy continues to struggle since the military regime fell in 2011. Tourism authorities are hoping to boost visitor numbers from the 15.5 million in 2017 to 30 million by 2020, according to the Myanmar government.
At least 57,000 people were killed in 2017 by Rohingya insurgents, and hundreds of thousands more fled the region for the rest of the world.
The government declared a 30-day period of mourning before the return of tourists on 1 January, with the Wutipunthaw temple situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy river in Rakhine state opening its doors on 1 January.
It is the government’s plan to wait until “peace has been fully restored” to kick off again. It means that holidaymakers currently stuck by the previous year’s violence will not be allowed to return to the country until “all infrastructure is in place”.
The government is therefore looking at adding new facilities, such as a number of lavish lakeside resorts, as well as offering incentives for foreign investment in the economy. However, with doubts swirling over when the crisis will finally be solved and peace keeping for foreign businesses, not to mention what will happen to the country once US president Donald Trump is no longer in office, those wishing to visit are unlikely to stay for long.
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Thammasat University professor Nyan Tun, who focuses on development policies, said: “A lot of the hotel projects that were planned before 2016 have been halted; there’s already been a $5bn investment in the industry which is almost completely unexploited. If Myanmar opens up tourism in a period of three years, it means there will be a lot of empty hotel rooms.”
In 2016 only 1,388 hotel rooms were operating in Yangon, according to the Myanmar tourism ministry’s website.
Another tourist agency, Asan, has started showing some damage from the conflict, calling on tourists to stay away. But a spokesperson said: “The violence of 2016 has started to die down, so we’re optimistic that we’ll see more tourists return.”
According to experts, while things are slowly stabilising for tourists from abroad, political upheaval in Myanmar is casting a long shadow over the region. University of Texas, London School of Economics and Oxford specialist in Asean studies Maximilian Berger said: “The same problems would have become more entrenched under a government dominated by the military.”
Tourism organisations hoping to bring tourism back to Myanmar should continue to promote the country as “safe and welcome”, he added.
Asma, 24, a tourist manager from Yangon, was in the process of booking a trip to Christmas Island and was unsure whether she would still want to visit the country.
“The instability makes me afraid. It’s exhausting walking on the street and hearing gunfire,” she said. “I’m not a politically active person, but if more meetings are attacked, things could really worsen. If you go to a place and suddenly think things are going to turn worse, you may decide not to go.”
She questioned whether it is wise to go to a region deemed unsafe by both the UN and the US.