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Myanmar tourist arrivals rose 18 percent last year to 3.44 million visitors, despite international condemnation over the treatment of its Rohingya Muslim population.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism said it had expected around 3.5 million visitors last year after arrival numbers dipped to 2.9 million in 2016 from 4.7 million in the previous 12 months (see chart below).
“I think the figure increased as we held many promotional events, and the government has allowed tourists to travel previously restricted areas,” U Myint Htwe, deputy director general at the ministry, said in an interview.
Yet reliable data in Myanmar can be difficult to obtain. In December, the quality of the country’s banking statistics was called into question by the World Bank.
Around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh since August last year when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 25 police and army posts, killing a dozen security officials.
The military responded with what it calls “clearance operations,” with reports of security forces and Buddhist vigilantes indiscriminately attacking the Rohingya and burning their villages. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
“We expected 3.5 million in 2017 but we only received 3.44 million due to natural disaster and H1N1,” said Myint Htwe, adding that the impact of the conflict in the northern part of Rakhine state was limited because it’s a not a major tourist destination. “We expect more than 3.44 million this year,” he said.
In 2015, the World Travel & Tourism Council estimated that Myanmar’s travel and tourism sector would grow by 8.4 percent by 2025 to become the country’s No. 1 contributor to gross domestic product. A 2013 report on Myanmar by the McKinsey Global Institute, estimated that tourism could contribute $14.1 billion to Myanmar’s economy by 2030 and employ around 2.3 million people.
“Tourism in 2017 was definitely impacted in the overall market, particularly with regard to visitors from Europe,” Enrico Cesenni, chief executive officer of Myanmar Strategic Holdings Ltd, which has investments in Myanmar’s hotels and tourism sector.
“The good thing is that we’re experiencing more visitors from Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries,” he said. “North Asia countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, are also bringing in more tourists.”