While the global travel industry was halted by Covid-19, Myanmar’s tourism sector was battered by the double crisis of the pandemic and the military coup. A sliver of hope is now on the horizon for industry members, however, with the resumption of the e-visa and reopening of some destinations to inbound travel after a closure of over two years.
Major attractions including Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake are open, although some regions previously popular with tourists — such as Kayah State and southern Chin State — remain off limits due to security concerns.
“The resilience shown by Myanmar’s people is remarkable,” said Myanmar Tourism Marketing’s head of PR, Sammy Samuels. “Reopening the e-visa facility will revive the tourism sector a bit, but this year will be challenging.”
"[Reopening inbound tourism] does not mean the struggle is over here nor that the situation is stable. However, it does offer a chance for Myanmar to more closely engage with the world once more.”– Bertie Alexander Lawson, CEO, Sampan Travel
Hotels in the accessible locations are slowly reopening with a focus on the domestic market and are hoping to receive inbound tourists soon, said Samuels, who is also managing director of tour agency Shalom Myanmar.
At Inle Lake in Shan State, one of the country’s most popular destinations, Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min has reopened, while Sofitel Inle Lake Myat Min is yet to open its doors. The properties’ acting general manager and cluster financial controller, Priyantha Jayawickrema, said locals and expats are travelling but the properties have yet to receive foreign guests.
A tour operator who declined to be named said they expect “very few” foreign visitors as long as the military remain in charge. “The world had two Covid years to choose their next destination and many are looking for a hassle-free holiday — that's not what Myanmar offers at the moment.”
They went on to say that the country’s tourism sector is “looking at a very, very small niche market of travellers who want to understand a country and its people (even if that's not always a pretty sight)”.
For boutique tour operator Sampan Travel, working out how to best guarantee the security of its guests and partners and ensure responsible travel has been the priority for the past 18 months.
“We wouldn’t be taking any risks,” said CEO Bertie Alexander Lawson. Sampan is operating in a few destinations it judges to be the safest and is working closely with partners to ensure it is up to date with developments across the country, so it can “keep guests safe if things do emerge.”
Lawson and his team spent the previous month travelling through the regions where they will send their guests this year, such as southern Shan State, Inle Lake, the hill town of Kalaw, and Pindaya, which is renowned for its limestone caves. “Guests will go through more check points, and see more police, but we never felt unsafe,” he shared.
Although some tourism industry stakeholders and aid workers are still vehemently discouraging travel to the country due to the continuing unrest, and the belief that tourism dollars will only benefit the military junta, Lawson is adamant that responsible travel can “bring much-needed money and employment back into a blighted economy.” In addition to this, he wrote on LinkedIn, “future travellers to Myanmar will be future allies of Myanmar.”
Reopening inbound tourism “does not mean the struggle is over here nor that the situation is stable,” he continued. “It does not mean that everything is OK. However it does offer a chance for Myanmar to more closely engage with the world once more.”
The tour operator echoed Lawson’s sentiments: “The people of Myanmar need support now; both financial and moral. I think it's important not to shun or boycott the very people who are fighting for democracy, but instead support them as much as possible. This also could include visiting the country as a responsible traveller.”