An abrupt change in the rules for prearranged visas-on-arrival for package tourists has caused consternation among travel experts in Myanmar, who say the decision will have a negative impact on the country’s tourism industry.
In early March the Ministry of Immigration and Population suddenly announced that prearranged visas-on-arrival (VOA) would be limited to package tours with 10 or fewer people, effective immediately.
Previously, there was no limit on group size.
U Maung Maung Than, the ministry’s director general, told The Myanmar Times last week that the change was made to meet standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
“We wanted to adhere to ICAO standards, so we asked travel associations and agents to follow the new limits,” he said.
“Immigration is directly connected to security concerns, and limiting the group size allows us to process the visas without rushing and without causing a mess at the airport.”
On the positive side, U Maung Maung Than said the ministry was planning on introducing an electronic visa application system by the end of the year.
“To introduce the e-visa system, we need to work with many different ministries and departments. We will have meetings with other officials, and then we will invite bids from companies that want to implement the project,” he said.
The ministry’s Department of Immigration and National Registration introduced the VOA system in Myanmar on May 1, 2010, a move that was hailed as a breakthrough for the tourism industry.
For the first time, foreign visitors could apply for a visas-on-arrival when passing through Yangon and Mandalay international airports without having to make any prior arrangements except a return air ticket.
But the program was suspended on September 1, just two months before Myanmar held its first general election in decades.
The VOA system was reintroduced on June 1, 2012, but only for business travellers, conference and workshop attendees, and transit visitors. Prearranged tourist visas were also allowed for package tours, with no limit on the number of people in each group.
U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, the chairman of Myanmar Tourism Marketing (MTM), said representatives from private tourism associations, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, and the Ministry of Immigration held a meeting last week at Panda Hotel to discuss ways to avoid limiting the size of groups eligible for prearranged VOA.
“The Ministry of Immigration said immigration played a big role in the country’s security. It seems that for now there won’t be any changes in their decision to limit group sizes,” he said.
However, he applauded the plan to implement an e-visa program, which he said was essential to realising the government’s aim to attract 3 million tourists in 2014.
“It makes sense to stop the prearranged VOA program if e-visas are available to all potential visitors to Myanmar. But we are not ready to start due to the lack of banking infrastructure,” U Phyoe Wai Yar Zar said.
Experts in the tourism industry said the rule change limiting group sizes for prearranged VOA would negatively impact Myanmar’s image as a tourist destination.
Edwin Briels, the general manager of Khiri Travel Yangon, said Myanmar’s visa policies have resulted in his company receiving cancellations from clients from Argentina, Dubai, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland, including some who were already on their way to Southeast Asia.
“They all cancelled their tours to Myanmar because they didn't have time to apply for a visa at a Myanmar embassy, or they were not able to send their passport overseas for a long time to apply for a visa,” Mr Briels said.
“Some clients from the US who tried to apply at the Myanmar embassy in Singapore were refused because the embassy there only accepts applications from people who live in Singapore,” he said.
“Besides that, we have had a few overseas tour operators who have taken Myanmar out of their brochures because they say it is simply too complicated to deal with.”
Daw Phyu Phyu Mar, the managing director of Seven Star Travel and Tour, agreed that the sudden limitation on VOA group sizes was a step backward for the tourism industry.
“We are just starting to experience a golden era for Myanmar tourism, and we have earned a good image around the world. But this sudden announcement has damaged the reputation and image of the country,” she said.
“Luckily we are entering the low season, but for the long term it’s impossible to imagine growth in the industry without a good VOA system, unless we quickly introduce an e-visa system. I don’t think the ministry’s reasons for limiting group sizes for prearranged VOA are good enough.”