Myanmar: Is now a good time to go?
With U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Myanmar on Monday, the spotlight is shining brighter than ever on the once reclusive nation that over the last two years has embarked on a series of reforms following decades of repressive military rule.
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These include the lifting of sanctions, the release of political prisoners and the floatation of the Myanmar currency, which is currently trading at about 850 kyats (pronounced "chat") to the U.S. dollar.
Obama’s visit will add further impetus to the interest in Myanmar. Investors will be encouraged to move into the market, companies in Myanmar will find it easier to do business and any moral or safety reservations that international visitors might have harbored about visiting Myanmar have disappeared.
In the last 12 months, Myanmar has rocketed to the top of must-go-now lists everywhere as travellers –- just like the world’s powers –- scramble to get in before the country is overrun, and telltale signs of development can already be seen in former capital Yangon.
Pepsi and Coca Cola billboards tower over traffic intersections. Car dealerships are popping up all over the city. MTV EXIT has announced it will host the first ever large-scale, open-air public concert headlined by an international artist in the city on December 16, 2012. Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Jason Mraz will headline the gig, held at the foot of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda.
And the government is certainly doing all it can to encourage tourism.
The Myanmar Tourism Federation (MTF) has set up an international division to broaden the country’s outreach and attract more tourists and business visitors, reports the Myanmar Times.
Myanmar's Department of Civil Aviation is also reportedly planning to upgrade Yangon International Airport from its present capacity of 2.7 million passengers a year to 3.7 million in 2013 and 5 million when the upgrade is completed in 2015 to handle the increase in international passengers.
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How can you get a visa?
On April 1, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism launched its e-visa website, which was designed to enable visitors to obtain an electronic visa within five working days. More than six months on it's still only running in a test format.
“Right now the plan is to make the e-visa available first for people in Southeast Asia -- so Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia -- and then make it available to everyone,” says Tin Nwe Wynt, marketing manager at the Myanmar Marketing Committee.
Until that happens, tourists have three official routes to obtaining the 28-day, US$30 Myanmar tourist visa.
The first is to visit the Myanmar embassy in a given country and apply prior to your trip. Passengers flying in from Guangzhou or Cambodia on Myanmar Airways will usually be automatically granted a visa on arrival at Yangon airport.
And if you’re traveling on a chartered flight or cruise or have booked a package tour, your tour company can pre-arrange a visa on arrival with two weeks’ advance notice.
Another route for independent travelers is through one of the not-so-official but nevertheless efficacious agencies that advertise visas on arrival through their websites.
Some agencies request wire transfers; other agencies demand payment to be handed over to an agent waiting in the Yangon International Airport departure lounge upon arrival.
Prices for this service range from US$35-$80, but rumor has it these sites will be shut down once the official e-visa system gets going.
While information about the new e-visa scheme is limited, it seems that applicants will not be required to meet any criteria to enter the country, nor will there be a cap on the number of visas granted.
“The government is trying to make it as convenient as possible for international visitors," says Khin Than Win, Director for Tourism Promotion at the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. "I don’t know that the government will put a limit on the number of visitors.”
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Where will you sleep?
In 2011, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism tallied the total number of visitors at 391,176. In 2012, that figure is expected to rise to 500,000, and travel industry insiders are worried that the country’s infrastructure won’t be able to cope, especially during the peak months of November to March.
Of the 25,358 hotel rooms nationwide, 8,152 are spread over Yangon’s 193 hotels and guest houses. In popular destinations Bagan and Nyaung Shwe township, the home of Inle Lake, there are just 2076 and 937 rooms registered, respectively.
Given that in December 2011 alone, 47,475 international visitors entered the country, 43,800 of which entered at Yangon, the big question is, where is everyone going to bed down?
"During the high season, rooms are very limited," says general manager of The Strand Hotel, Didier Belmonte. "We saw tourists arriving in Yangon without accommodation and tour operators had to arrange for them to fly to Bagan or Mandalay where hotel rooms were available."
Yangon’s new Centrepoint Hotel is expected to open in 2013, adding a reported 200 to 300 rooms to the accommodation roster, with another “four or five” hotels to be developed in the next few years.
And, of course, a supply-and-demand pricing mechanism is in full effect, with tour operators complaining that their contracted prices were being raised three, four and five times in succession.
Earlier this year, rooms that cost US$80 were hitting prices of US$200 or US$250, with zero cash reportedly being put back into renovations.
"Myanmar is already 30 percent more expensive than Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in terms of [similar] quality hotels, domestic flights, restaurants and so on,” says Anne Cruickshanks, product and adventure manager, Exotissimo Travel Myanmar.
The result is that travelers bowled over by Myanmar’s palm-fringed beaches, verdant mountain treks, majestic cultural sights and hospitable people are already feeling a little shortchanged.
“My hotel, the Summit Park View Hotel, in Yangon was disappointing," says Stephen Bures, a Vietnam-based American entrepreneur, recounting his visit last October. "I had the feeling it was a government-run hotel. The carpets were dirty, things didn’t work. It wasn’t great.” Rooms in that hotel start at US$110 per night.
In response to the inflated room prices, the Myanmar government in June 25 set a cap of US$150 for standard hotel rooms following lobbying from travel agents and fears that skyrocketing prices would damage the international image of the industry, reports the Myanmar Times. Though foreign-owned hotels were complying, the report says some locally owned hotels were still jacking prices up three to four times higher than they were a year ago.
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Impact on locals
Alongside innumerable positives that a tourist-dollar injection may have on the lives of local people, there also come negatives.
Locally, there's a concern that an open-to-all e-visa policy and corresponding spike in visitor numbers could result in an increase in undesirable tourism with negative repercussions for the environment, culture and society.
“After cyclone Nargis [in 2008], many women affected by the disaster came to Yangon to find a job, but instead were forced into the sex industry," says Aung Myo Min, executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. "Young people looking for a better job have no idea of this side of the industry and could fall into that trap.”
“During 1996, the regime’s 'Visit Myanmar Year' tourism promotion, the junta deified Bagan as an ancient city, but instead of renovating it, they painted it without paying attention to its preservation, kicking out the local villagers in direct violation of their human rights.
"Even the development of infrastructure had an impact on human rights. In Thibaw, local people were forced to work alongside the army on the roads. The government doesn’t have a long-term plan and society doesn’t have enough information about responsible tourism."
In an effort to educate tourists on the local culture, Tourism Transparency, an independent non-government organization campaigning for an open and accountable tourism industry in Myanmar, published a cartoon guide called "Dos and Don'ts for tourists."
Where are you going to go?
One thing authorities do have a firm grip on is who goes where. Visitors can now travel to big-ticket spots like Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Irrawaddy regions with no restrictions, but must apply a permit for some destinations, which typically takes around five to seven working days.
Other areas open and close periodically and some sites are still off-limits, ostensibly because of conflicts between the military and ethnic minorities, but also because some are planted with poppy fields reportedly owned by the military (Myanmar is reportedly the world’s second largest producer of opium).
The best way to keep abreast of the accessibility of Myanmar’s wealth of destinations is to ask a travel agent or embassy or visit the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism website.
Operators say there are enough decent vehicles and drivers in the major destinations to cover the volume of visitors for now, but they'll likely be caught short in the future. Some even admit that even now for last-minute bookings they’re forced to rope in well-educated taxi drivers as a last resort.
Buses and trains, while serving many destinations, can be expensive for what you get and run several hours behind schedule. The quality of vehicles is generally low -- no windows, zero interior fittings and views of the road passing by through holes in the floor -- so if you’re planning on taking the scenic overland route, make sure you’re comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.
Even travel aboard Myanmar’s shiny new aircraft fleets can be tiresome.
“The flights are mainly geared towards local travelers," explains Anne Cruickshanks. "Last week, all afternoon flights were cancelled upcountry, so we had to switch all of our clients onto 6 a.m. flights. In the low season, that sort of thing is quite common.”
In terms of human resources, many new hotels are having trouble finding trained staff, and well-established hotels may find it difficult to retain their human resources when big players like Oberoi, Marriot and Anantara -- all purportedly looking at opportunities in Yangon -- enter the market in the coming years.
Experienced tour guides are another resource in short supply. Chinese tourists were the most frequent visitors by nationality in 2011, representing 15.95 percent of all visitor arrivals, with a total of 62,018.
Of 3,161 licensed tour guides in Myanmar, only 125 are registered as Chinese-speaking.
English-speaking travelers are relatively well catered for -- 1,931 guides speak the mother tongue of Myanmar’s former British colonial rulers -- but in the next couple of years, other nationalities might have to make do with their guidebooks while tourism schools catch up.
All this being said, traveling in Myanmar is still a pretty easygoing experience, provided you secure rooms in advance, allow for last-minute itinerary changes and roll with unexpected difficulties.
Money is coming in, the industry is developing and the whole country is imbued with a palpable sense of optimism for the future.
“There are many signs that the tourism industry is improving -- the standard of hotels has improved and a star-rating system will be introduced, tourist transportation has been upgraded and the quality of service and tourism education standards have been enhanced,” says Khin Than Win.
“New hotel zones are being developed in Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay and Bagan and areas to be developed include the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago in the south and snowcapped mountains in the far north.”
And while the world gears up to move on Myanmar and the government tries to deal with the country’s newfound popularity, for the time being the country is still a frontier travel destination, relatively unsullied by tourism and with an enticing atmosphere of mysticism and romance.
Most visitors find their experience overwhelmingly positive.
“I expected it to be an amazing trip, but it was much more spiritual than I expected," says Jane Chun, a social scientist at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam.
"Sunset in Bagan, climbing Mount Popa, looking down on the hills and seeing forests and huge tracts of undeveloped land. Even when you expect it, it’s breathtaking.
“The people are so friendly and warm, I guess because it’s been closed for such a long time, and there’s just something pristine about the place. I guess that will probably change in the next couple of the years.”
When you go
- Flights: Over a dozen international carriers currently fly to Myanmar from more than 15 cities in Asia. More flights and carriers will be added in the near future. Flight availability is currently not a limitation: in 2011, these flights operated at 62.77 per cent capacity over the course of the year.
- Weather: In Bagan, the change in diurnal temperature can be extreme, climbing as high as 43 C and dropping to the low 20s at night. At Inle Lake, almost 900 meters above sea level, the temperature can dip to a chilly 12 C after dark, and the highlands can be around the freezing mark.
- Communications: As you'd expect, Myanmar’s telecommunications network is behind that of its neighbors. Some domestic mobile operators have great coverage in Yangon, but little to nothing upcountry. If you pick up the phone to call and the line rings out, you’re not necessarily being ignored -– it’s more likely that the phone isn’t ringing at the other end. Roaming isn’t available, but visitors can rent a SIM card for a US$50 refundable deposit and US$2 a day at Yangon international airport. Bear in mind that while Internet is far less restricted than before, you won’t have the luxury of high-speed connections.
- Money: While ATMs have become a common sight in the cities, they only provide access to Myanmar bank accounts. Travelers cannot make overseas withdrawals or credit card payments in Myanmar, so carry cash for the whole trip in the latest design U.S. dollar notes, Euros and Singapore dollars. All notes must be absolutely pristine, with no marks or tears, and the larger the bill, the better the rate -– you’ll get around 15 percent more kyats for crisp US$100 bills than small denominations.
- Credit: In cash flow emergencies, a handful of big hotels and tour companies offer a credit card withdrawal service via a third party in Singapore or Bangkok to sidestep financial sanctions. (Most big hotels and operators have an account overseas to accept international payments.)
- The future of ATMs: The recent lifting of sanctions and floatation of the currency has sparked hope that life for the plastic-toting traveler could soon be easier. United Overseas Bank has a representative office in Myanmar, as do about 15 other banks from countries ranging from Bangladesh, Brunei and Cambodia to China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore. There have been recent news reports tha more international banks are also considering opening offices in Myanmar, and that Ayeyarwady Bank has already started installing SWIFT payment systems to encourage dialogue with international banks. Joint ventures could be on the cards if things go well, but the spendthrift’s dream of withdrawals from overseas accounts is still a little way off.
- Originally published April, 2012. Updated November 19, 2012.