Myanmar puts out welcome mat for tourism investors

Myanmar puts out welcome mat for tourism investors

The Royal Palace in Mandalay, featuring a watchtower reached by a 200-step spiral staircase, is a popular tourist attraction in the former capital of Myanmar. Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe
The Royal Palace in Mandalay, featuring a watchtower reached by a 200-step spiral staircase, is a popular tourist attraction in the former capital of Myanmar. Photo: Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Renowned for its rich culture and heritage but isolated during decades of military rule, Myanmar was long regarded as one of the hidden gems of global tourism. But tourism has grown significantly since the country began opening up in 2011.

To help the tourism sector develop to its full potential, the current civilian government is seeking to attract more foreign investment. Help is clearly needed as international visitor arrivals are soaring -- they rose 18% last year -- and straining the existing hospitality infrastructure.

The country possesses rich potential to attract both investors and tourists, according to U Ohn Maung, Union Minister of Hotels and Tourism. From spectacular 5,000-metre peaks in the far north to the divers' paradise islands in the south, Myanmar offers more than just its famous cultural and heritage sites.

With this in mind, the government is looking to diversify its tourist attractions and is willing to accommodate any investors who have good, sustainable ideas.

"We will try to show them all around and explain where and how to invest. Our new investment law has been greatly relaxed," Ohn Maung told the Myanmar Insight 2018 forum held in Bangkok last month.

The government has also eased visa regulations for three major markets -- China, Japan and South Korea -- in order to attract more tourists from the region. Asians already account for 70% of all international arrivals.

Under a one-year trial starting on Oct 1, Japanese and South Korean travellers will be allowed visa-free entry by air and land, while groups from China will be able to enter with a visa on arrival for US$50 per person at airports in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw.

Myanmar is expecting a further 22% rise in international arrivals this year, from 3.4 million last year, according to Thet Lwin Toh, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association.

Foreign investors who want to tap into this high-potential market can take advantage of many incentives, he said. "Tax exemptions are offered for seven, five and three years depending on the region. … There are a lot of chances to do business here, especially for travel and tour companies."

Besides cultural heritage tourism, Myanmar wants to offer more interactive experiences with community-based tourism and ecotourism. The Myanmar Tourism Master Plan 2013-2020 makes sustainable development a priority, ensuring that environmentally sensitive sites are well-protected while ethnic groups are properly respected by outsiders.

Respect for the local community is something investors always need to keep in mind, says Supalak Foong, managing director of the Prime Residence, a Thai-Myanmar joint venture that is preparing to open the luxurious Rosewood Yangon hotel.

"We are in Myanmar which is the home of the homeowner. So I think it's also important for us to try to approach the law of the homeowners to respect their understanding," she said.

"That's what I want to encourage investors to do. Don't try to change the country to whatever we think. We should look around, absorb the culture, understand the people, and then feature that."

Ohn Maung said investors should also keep in mind that Myanmar is a year-round tourism destination, which further enhances its potential. "I think it is the right time for you to come in with your investment," he said.

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