Myanmar tourism boom set to bring 7.5m visitors a year

Sunsets are a big draw for tourists, who flock to Mandalay Hill in Myanmar daily to catch the setting sun.
Sunsets are a big draw for tourists, who flock to Mandalay Hill in Myanmar daily to catch the setting sun.PHOTO: DAWN TAY

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar is hoping to lure 7.5 million tourists a year by 2019, an official said on Tuesday (Aug 2), as the impoverished former junta-ruled nation emerges as one of Southeast Asia's hot destinations.

Travel to the once-cloistered country used to be reserved for the well-heeled and intrepid, prepared to endure the travails of a country under military rule with patchy electricity and limited communications.

But foreign tourists have flocked in since the country began opening up in 2011, with celebrities such as pop stars Beyonce and Jay Z helping to popularise the message that the country is open for visitors.

This year Myanmar is on track to welcome 5.5 million tourists, nearly a million more than 2015, Tint Thwin, director-general of Ministry of Hotels and Tourism told AFP.

"We hope the number will grow to 7.5 million tourists per year within three years," he said on the sidelines of a major tourism conference in Yangon.

"We will try to find new destinations for tourists to visit and we will also support community-based tourism," he said in an effort to raise incomes in one of Asia's poorest countries.

In comparison, neighbouring Thailand - a regional tourism behemoth - received 30 million visitors last year, offering a tantalising glimpse of the riches to be made.

Curiosity in Myanmar's culture and natural beauty has surged in recent years in lockstep with the rollback of most international sanctions and the ascension of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party to power.

But challenges remain.

Hotels are expensive and often do not meet the standards of more traveller-friendly countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

There have also been a number of incidents where tourist behaviour has clashed with Myanmar's conservative culture.

A Spanish tourist was deported last month for sporting a tattoo of the Buddha on his leg in the Buddhist-majority country, while authorities are struggling to prevent the surging visitor numbers from damaging the vast Bagan temple site.

Myanmar travel groups are also hoping to attract wealthier package tours to provide year-round jobs.