As a founding member of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and the current Chairman, U Thet Lwin Toh has seen many changes to the tourism industry over the years. He first started a tour operations company in 1993, offering pilgrimage tours to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and quickly became a pioneering outbound tourism operator. Using his 25 years experience, he discusses the struggles facing tourism in Myanmar and his hopes and ambitions for the future.
Tourism has seen a 20-30% drop in the last year; what is the prediction for this coming season?
Compared to the last year, this year’s drop in arrivals is not so bad because more Eastern tourists are arriving. Chinese tourists have increased by 36%, Korean by 12% and Japanese by 2%. This is because they have released the visa on October 1st. But this is volume tourism, but our country needs value tourism. That comes from Western countries. Our target is sustainable tourism for the future. Today the day Western market has dropped to up to 40-50%. Eastern tourism is good for the short terms, but Western is for long term. Our State Councillor also understands this.
What do you think Myanmar can do to repair its bad reputation with Western tourists?
Their impression of Myanmar has changed in the last four years. It used to be known as the land of the Lady but today it is know for human rights abuse and as a country of genocide based on the situation in Rakhine. We need a more positive media campaign. But our government is not quick enough to respond, they have no transparency. Tourism is a very sensitive business. In 2007 we had the Saffron Revolution and 2008 there was Cyclone Nargis, but this is worse than those events.
What are some of the plans to make Yangon more appealing to tourists?
Myanmar has many attractions outside of Yangon, but Yangon has only the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Tourists need sightseeing, shopping, places to relax, as well as entertainment and
nightlife. For another attraction in Yangon, last year I introduced the Mingalabar Balloon by Kandawgyi Lake for a panoramic view to see Yangon. We had to close it for monsoon but
we are reinvesting in a more efficient balloon. It will be completed very soon. We also have a Lantern Festival planned, like a mini-Disneyland. This project has been approved and will start before Christmas until the end of March. We also want night markets and Sunday markets, every country has something similar. In San Francisco there are farmers market, in Japan they have the 100-Yen markets, but there is nothing like that here. Tourists need somewhere to go after dining. We are going to target Shwedagon Pagoda Road for a market space. For the Sunday market we want Pansodan to be a closed road market. The sellers are very important, if you have a good seller you have a good buyer.
Will these new night markets and Sunday markets be publicly or privately funded?
That’s a very important question. YCDC can do short-term festivals but they can’t manage long-term. We want to appoint an operation management company for this space. They can rent the space and pay tax to YCDC, and they will have to manage everything like organising, security and cleaning.
What are your thoughts on the renovation plans for the Secretariat?
For the Secretariat, we need more renovation and attractions. We need a museum for the martyr’s last meeting. There should be a good library and a coffee shop or bar and some evening entertainment. It’s a unique place but some conservative people are against it being saved. But that’s the wrong way. We should be closing the road outside on Sundays for the booksellers and have vendors selling antiques too. Like Le Rambla in Barcelona, it’s not only for tourists but for local people too.
What is the current status of the Unesco application for Bagan?
I’m also a member of Bagan Management Committee. We finished our master plan in September last year and proposed to Unesco. Last month the Unesco inspector was in
Bagan. Tentatively Bagan is agreeable but there are a lot of issues for local communities and hotels. They want no more people living in this area but we argued that issue. Our target is for a “living Bagan”; we want existing hotels to remain.
What are your hopes for the future of tourism in Yangon?
We want people to spend more time in Yangon, it should be more environmentally friendly; it should be a smart and clean city. People’s mentality is important too. People’s mind-set has become very selfish and aggressive, not kind. I feel ashamed of my people. Tourism is for all; everyone can earn from tourism money. Today the NLD government try to bring peace, but business development is impossible. If businesses develop and everybody can eat and sleep well, peace will follow. Today, the reason we are fighting is because of poverty, especially in rural areas. In minority areas we should be concentrating on education and community-based tourism. We should be promoting tourism there, bringing clean tourism money. It will release their smuggling, their narcotic businesses and trafficking businesses. That’s our dream; tourism for peace. I tried to explain this to Aung San Suu Kyi too – but she’s under a lot of pressure.