If you might have thought there would be some discontent about traveling to Myanmar these days at the Pacific Asia Travel Association event this week in Langkawi, Malaysia, you’d be hard-pressed to find any.
This is, after all, a travel trade show, and there currently are no major calls for a travel boycott because of the Myanmar government’s ethnic cleaning campaign, or genocide, against its Muslim Rohingya population, an atrocity that began in 2012.
Myanmar, including its Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, had a prominent position on the trade show floor at the Mahsuri International Exhibition Centre in Langkawi. The Myanmar booth was near the front entrance to the exhibit floor right next to Tourism Malaysia, the event’s host country.
Zaw Myo Latt, the deputy director of the Myanmar ministry’s tourism promotion department, said visitor arrivals to Myanmar rose 2 percent to around 777,300 year over year in July. Government statistics showed that Asia, up 12 percent, was the only region with a jump. Arrivals from North America (-15 percent), Other Americas (-19 percent), Western Europe (-26 percent), Eastern Europe (-15 percent), Africa (-12 percent), Middle East (-23 percent), and Oceania (-14 percent), were all in the negative.
“All this talk of a boycott is kind of redundant,” said Stuart McDonald, who writes Travelfish, a travel guide for Southeast Asia. “Many travelers, at least those from the West, appear to have made the decision for themselves about where they are comfortable traveling to.”
Within Asia, according to the government’s official numbers, Chinese visitors to Myanmar rose 34 percent to some 153,700 in July, versus July 2017, the largest percentage jump in the region.
The Chinese and Myanmar governments have close political and economic ties.
The numbers from Thailand, Malaysia and India likewise trended upwards.
Zaw said the biggest problems facing Myanmar tourism these days are lack of infrastructure, skilled labor, and the perception that Myanmar is not safe because of the publicity about the Rohingyas.
Thein Aung, who like Zaw was at the Myanmar booth at the show, and works on marketing the country’s tourism through the Union of Myanmar Promotion Association, said one of the main messages to travel agencies and their clients is come and visit Myanmar, the country is safe. He argued that the “crisis” with the Rohingya has subsided, and is located far from tourism areas.
“You have shootings in the U.S. too,” Thein said, adding that doesn’t mean America is not safe to visit.
Myanmar has changed its tourism slogan to “Myanmar: Be Enchanted,” from the former, “Myanmar: Let the Journey Begin.”
More importantly, with the tourism swoon from geographies beyond Asia, Myanmar is focusing its marketing efforts on travel agencies in Japan, Korea and China, Thein said. Visitors from Japan and Korea don’t require visas to enter Myanmar, he added, and Chinese tourists gets visas upon arrival.
The Myanmar government has allotted some $1 million for tourism promotion in 2018, Thein said, and platforms include trade shows in Malaysia, Singapore, and China, as well as digital marketing through WhatsApp.
Travel Brands Send People to Myanmar
In an interview earlier in the week, Mario Hardy, the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the situation in Myanmar is “terrible,” but he would oppose a boycott of Myanmar because of its human rights practices. Hardy said he opposes travel boycott in general because they tend to hurt local travel providers more than governments.
That sentiment was the norm at the travel mart this week.
For example, Lorraine Simpson and Stacey Ray, the principals in North American host agency Groupit Travel, said they plan to offer a fam trip and group-travel training session for travel agents in Myanmar in March.
Simpson and Ray came to the travel mart this week with about a dozen travel agents, as part of their Masterminds of Travel group-travel training program, adding that the agents will be talked with suppliers at the show, and were learning about unique destinations such as Myanmar.
While travelers outside of Asia appear to be avoiding Myanmar in terms of declining visitations, there was no hint of any blip in Myanmar tourism at this week’s show.