Though hopes of developing tourism in Rakhine State suffered a blow as last month’s clashes prompted the cancellation of tour packages in the strife-torn area, the tourist industry has seen few or no ill-effects for the country as a whole.
Travel to Ngapali, for instance, seems to be unaffected. A spokesperson for the Pleasant View Hotel in Ngapali Beach said the hotel was 80 percent booked from November to the first week of January. Most of the guests were foreigners.
However, many travel companies have cancelled planned tours to other parts of the state following an outbreak of fighting in the region in October that led to the deaths of 87 people. More than 200 people have died in fighting between Buddhists and Muslims since June, according to the government.
“There was no official announcement [from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism]. But everybody knows tourists will not be safe there in this situation, so [companies] cancelled programs,” said U Khin Maung Htun, a director of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.
Alternative tours are being offered instead.
U Khin Maung Htun said the violence came shortly after the regional government had requested the federation’s help to promote tourism in the area.
He said the federation was asked to draw up plans to promote tourism in Sittwe, Mrauk-Oo, Thandwe (Ngapali), Munaung, Ramree and Kyaukpyu townships.
“It will difficult to develop tourism in this situation but we will carry on when things become stable and we can guarantee safety,” he added.
U Soe Myint of Rendez-Vous International Travel said his company was no longer offering a package for Rakhine State, despite frequent requests from tourists.
A spokesman for another tour company said: “It’s not easy to ask tourists to visit somewhere else instead of Mrauk-Oo. It’s a very popular destination, and we get lots of inquiries about it.”
The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism restricted travel to Mrauk-Oo, Sittwe and elsewhere in September, but lifted the restriction in October – just ahead of the latest outbreak of violence.
“[Earlier this month] we started to receive emails from some of our tour operators regarding travel advisories for Rakhine State issued by their governments in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. We keep potential passengers informed of the situation since the ultimate decision-maker is the customer,” said U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, managing director of All Asia Exclusive Travel.
“Destination management companies have lost one destination, and it will take at least a year to convince tour operators to feature trips to Rakhine State once the situation has been normalised,” he said.
He said some of his clients who are concerned for their security have cancelled trips to Rakhine State and other areas of Myanmar should be promoted in their place.
“We are now facing a situation to find alternative destinations, but this is quite difficult due to the limited infrastructure, such as hotels and domestic flights,” he said.
“Usually, Rakhine is a secondary destination and we use it to balance the load of visitors in the classic destinations (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake). Since it is partially shut off, I would say that the situation in Rakhine would not be helpful for us to ease the load in the other destinations. We need to urgently introduce destinations like southern Chin State and Mon State as alternatives.”
He said the situation would not cause a drop in national arrival numbers, as only a few thousand tourists visit Sittwe and Mrauk Oo each year.
“This situation is nothing new for the tourism industry of Myanmar … we should not panic and make too much noise about this situation. On the contrary, we should monitor the situation and give the true facts to clients in a timely manner and put our efforts into resurrecting [Rakhine State as a] destination as soon as it has become normalised,” he added.
U Thet Lwin Toh, managing director of Myanmar Voyage Travel and Tours, said the company was concerned that clients, particularly from Russia, would cancel packages that include Ngapali, even though the beach destination has been unaffected by the violence.
“So far we have no cancellations due to the Rakhine situation. But we hope peace is restored there soon,” he said.