Tourist floodgates open in Myanmar

2012-06-14 08:21

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The hotels are full or eye-wateringly expensive, creased dollar bills are worthless and credit cards are widely refused -- welcome to Myanmar, Asia's next big tourist destination.

The Southeast Asian nation, once shielded from international eyes by a brutal military junta and a travel boycott supported by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, has become a must-see for many travellers.

"Because the country has been so isolated, the deeply Buddhist 'Land of the Golden Pagoda' resonates with a strong sense of place, undiluted by mass tourism and warmed by genuine hospitality," the New York Times said in January, ranking the country third on its list of the top 45 destinations of 2012.

But the influx of tourists is posing a challenge to the burgeoning travel industry in a country where a string of political reforms has not been matched by infrastructure development.

The few hotels in Yangon offering international standards of business accommodation have begun to charge up to several hundred dollars a night for rooms that were half the price, if not less, a year ago.

Even hoteliers admit that the situation is unsustainable.

"To be really honest at this point I don't think that Myanmar is ready yet to cope with the high demand of mass tourism," said Thomas Moons, front office manager at the colonial-style Governor's Residence hotel in Yangon.

"At the moment in terms of availability and accommodation that we're able to offer, it's just not enough to cope with demand," he told AFP.

"People might think that if they come to Myanmar they will have a cheap holiday when it's completely the opposite."

While few doubt Myanmar's attraction to tourists, some people returning to the country say they enjoyed it more before the hordes arrived.

Klaus, a 61-year-old German travelling with his wife in the remote western town of Sittwe, said they were "disappointed" by their third trip to Myanmar.

"There are too many people this time, even though it is April (the peak of hot season)," he told AFP.

"People in hotels used to be so nice -- smiling and taking care of us --but they don't have time anymore... And hotel prices have gone through the roof."

International arrivals have rocketed, with almost 365,000 foreigners jetting into the main city Yangon in 2011, up 22 percent on the previous year and almost double the figure for 2003, industry figures show.

This year is likely to see another jump, with more than 175,000 arrivals between January and April, against almost 130,000 in the same period of 2011.

According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, there are only around 8,000 hotel rooms in the city.

At Yangon's famed golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the slow, circular promenade around the majestic golden spire was until recently mainly the preserve of local couples, children and burgundy-robed monks.

But recently foreigners have at times appeared to out-number locals, their cameras seemingly searching for the rare frame not to include a posse of other visitors.

Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, of the Myanmar Tourism Board, said the tourism influx had also caused "unprecedented congestion" at hotels, especially in Yangon, which have begun inflating their prices in response.

"Potential holiday makers may opt for other destinations in the region," he added.

Westerners used to the relative ease of travelling in other Southeast Asian countries, like neighbouring Thailand, are also being caught out by other symptoms of Myanmar's long years of isolation under military rule.

There are almost no places where credit and debit cards or travellers' cheques are accepted so visitors must bring all the money they need for their trip with them in US dollar bills.

While recent reforms mean there are more official moneychangers competing with the black market, the dollar bills must be crisp and clean or they will be rejected.

"Candidly speaking, there have been some tourists who arrived in Myanmar with insufficient information and did not bring enough cash for their stay," said Phyoe Wai Yar Zar.

But he stressed that travel agents were often able to help.

"It is the nature of Myanmar people to give assistance to the people in trouble."

The government is scrambling to improve the country's tourism infrastructure, with efforts to build new hotels and upgrade transport links at major tourist destinations.

Travel is currently centred on four main sites connected by internal flights -- Yangon, Inle Lake in eastern Shan State, the temples of Bagan and the royal capital Mandalay.

"A lot of the tourist money is concentrated into certain parts of the country," said Andrew Appleyard at British adventure tour operator Exodus Travels, which returned to the country last year after a decade-long hiatus.

Another popular destination is Ngapali Beach, a vast sweep of pristine, palm-lined sands facing the Indian Ocean in western Rakhine state.

But Britain and other countries are currently advising against non-essential travel to Rakhine, also home to the temples of Mrauk U, due to recent deadly civil unrest there.

Appleyard said Exodus, which advocates responsible travel, plans to take up to 400 people into the country annually but said there was an awareness that all operators were facing the problem of "making money out of an emerging country that can't cope".

"We will continue to operate there and look at best practice but clients' expectations are going to have to be managed, if they go there," he said.

"Service is slow, things don't always work and you are going to have to share places like Shwedagon with hundreds of tourists." - Sapa-AFP /dm

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