We've said it before, we'll say it again. Tourists are not apolitical. Politics and tourism do mix. Myanmar shouldn't be surprised at all that it is getting fewer tourists from Europe and no real increase in American visitors.
Myanmar’s genocide trial threatens to weigh on its tourism industry by prompting higher-spending European and U.S. visitors to stay away.
Widespread coverage of the case at the International Court of Justice again highlighted the plight of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 700,000 of them fled to neighboring Bangladesh after so-called clearance operations by the Myanmar military in 2017 that sparked global condemnation.
“The international community’s negative perception of Myanmar is currently the most challenging risk for tourism growth,” said Yangon-based May Myat Mon Win, head of Myanmar Tourism Marketing, which represents the industry. “On average, hotels in Yangon are still half-empty in terms of occupancy.”
The sector accounts for about 7 percent of the economy and supports over one million jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Fewer Europeans are traveling to Myanmar and U.S. arrivals are barely growing, sparking concern as they tend to be higher-spenders than still-rising Asian visitors.
The number of Europeans fell 1.4 percent in the first 10 months of 2019 compared with a year earlier, government data shows. U.S. arrivals climbed 2 percent, dwarfed by a 53 percent surge in Asian travelers thanks in part to relaxations in visa rules.
The tourism ministry estimates more than four million people have visited the Southeast Asian nation this year, up from about 3.6 million in 2018. “We’re not sure if we can sustain this growth next year as the external environment matters,” its deputy director general Aung Aye Han said.
In the near term, a climb in visitors from South Asia could help, said Naung Naung Han, president of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association.
The World Bank expects Myanmar’s economic expansion to climb toward 7 percent by 2022, even as domestic conflicts — including the one in Rakhine state that led to the exodus of Rohingya — remain downside risks.
Hotel and tour operators said they are catering to more Asian tourists than ever, but that their spending doesn’t match the levels of Western tourists.
“We now have to depend on Asian tourists, though we previously aimed for the Western market,” said Sabei Aung, managing director of Nature Dream Travels & Tours in Yangon. “It’s a bit like building a luxury condo — but living in it on an empty stomach.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
Photo credit: Shwedango Pagoda, a key attraction in the capital city Yangon. Bloomberg