Foreign travel market ‘booming’ as Myanmar look abroad

By Zaw Win Than
Volume 31, No. 615
February 20 - 26, 2012

AS tourist arrivals hit a record high in 2011, the number of Myanmar heading overseas continued to grow, Yangon-based companies specialising in outbound tours said.

“The outbound tourism market is really booming, said U Hein Thant, sales and reservation manager from Sun Far Travel and Tours in Yangon.

“We are offering medical tourism packages, 'free and easy' packages and all-inclusive tour packages. If you compare with two years ago, we are seeing positive growth in every part of the outbound sector. I’m expecting that it will continue to grow strongly over the next two or three years.”

He said about half of outbound travellers headed to destinations in Southeast Asia.

“Thailand is the top destination, whether it’s for shopping, medical treatment or leisure. [Myanmar] love to visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. After Thailand, the next most popular destinations are Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia,” he said.

However, growth is inhibited by the tight visa restrictions most countries place on travellers from Myanmar and the lack of direct air links to all ASEAN countries, including Brunei, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines.

“We need to apply for a visa in advance for most countries, even in ASEAN. It’s a huge burden for us and if Myanmar can apply for a visa-on-arrival without any visa charges that would be of huge benefit for the outbound market,” he said.

For this reason outbound travel is likely to increase even more quickly from 2015, when Myanmar will join the ASEAN Economic Community, said U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, secretary of the Myanmar Marketing Committee.

“Myanmar travellers wanting to visit other ASEAN countries will not need to apply for a visa from 2015. There should be no barriers between ASEAN countries, and this includes travel barriers,” he said.

One significant push factor has been the strong domestic currency, which appreciated more than 30 percent against the US dollar in 2011 and also rose strongly against regional currencies.

U Lynn Zaw Wai Mang, executive director of Unique Asia Travels and Tours, said the market was growing “quite fast” as a result.

“Demand is growing up to 35pc a year. Last year demand was very high because of the exchange rate, which made travel inside Myanmar almost as expensive as going abroad. People are also starting to think more about going abroad for knowledge, fun and business,” he said.

He said the most popular attractions for Myanmar travellers were theme parks, temples and, most of all, shopping, but also added that ASEAN countries could do much more to promote their tourism destinations among Myanmar travellers.

One issue for agencies specialising in outbound tours is the lack of Ministry of Hotels and Tourism support. Outbound agencies are not eligible to register with the ministry and outbound tourism is rarely promoted.

“The outbound market is really booming. There are many outbound travel agents and there is strong competition between them. If the ministry grants licences it will improve the sector and make it easier for customers to choose a reliable agent,” said U Htun Lwe, managing director of Golden Image Travel and Tours in Sanchaung township.

The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism figures released last month showed that Myanmar received 359,359 tourists through the Yangon gateway in 2011, up 21.76pc on 2010 when the country received 295,147 visitors. The ministry does not provide figures for outbound tourism.