Why keep the doors closed any longer?

FOR THE past couple of years, the small hilltop town of Thandaunggyi has been the petri dish for an experiment in hotel licensing.

The usual rules on licensing – that a property had to have at least 20 rooms for a hotel licence, or 10 for a guesthouse – remain in place. But an extra category has been created, for bed and breakfasts, or B&Bs.

These must still meet some criteria; guests and hosts must stay in different buildings, and each room must have its own bathroom, for example. There are also requirements that a local partner has at least some ownership.

But the crucial difference is that B&Bs can have as few as four guest rooms. In Thandaunggyi, this has enabled more than half-a-dozen local families to enter the tourism business by converting their properties into lodging quarters. For most of them, 10 rooms would have simply been too great an investment to contemplate.

As a new and little-known destination, guest numbers would also not have been high enough to justify the investment. For evidence, consider Exhibit A: the mouldering foundations of bungalow-style rooms at a planned hotel site on the winding road into Thandaunggyi.

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While the broader tourism project at Thandaunggyi hasn’t been perfect – more needs to be done to develop activities in the area, in particular – the owners of the B&Bs seem pleased with the results. In a sign of the growing power of domestic tourism, the number of local guests at the B&Bs has far exceeded foreigners.

The B&B licensing has achieved its aim. The money from lodging fees goes into the community rather than to outside investors, and guests can enjoy the experience of having a local host and more intimate accommodation. The B&Bs have started to kickstart a tourism economy – restaurants, guides, souvenirs – that simply wouldn’t have existed without them.

Given this, it seems absurd that Thandaunggyi is still the only area of the country to benefit from this opportunity.

In truth though, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has never been particularly supportive of the B&B plan, despite including draft B&B standards in the 2013 Community Involvement in Tourism policy. A handful of community-based tourism initiatives were subsequently launched, often with donor support. Some have been very successful, including a village-stay project at Myaing Township, in rural Magway Region.

Despite the change of government, the ministry has maintained its focus on promoting large-scale tourism. In its perfect world, visitors would fly around the country, stick to the more famous destinations, stay in expensive hotels and buy as many overpriced souvenirs as they can stuff in their suitcase.

Twenty years ago, this strategy might have made sense, and it still caters to a particular market. The problem is though that this market is shrinking — and the longer that Myanmar fails to respond to changing trends in the industry, the further it will fall behind other countries in the region. Those trends include a desire to engage more with local people, be closer to the natural environment and visit new, less developed destinations. B&Bs can cater to this demand in a way that hotels cannot. Yes, accommodation for foreign (and local) visitors needs to be safe and sanitary. But it doesn’t necessarily have to come in a large package.

A glance at Myanmar’s tourism arrival statistics tells you that all is not well in the industry. After a phenomenal increase in the first years of the Thein Sein government, there’s been very little real growth for a couple of years.

Some of that can be attributed to events in Rakhine State, which have put many Western travellers off visiting. But there are many other issues at play, including lack of promotion and poor infrastructure. Myanmar remains an expensive destination with a heavy focus on (mostly Buddhist) cultural attractions.

That’s not to say that a national rollout of B&B licences is the way forward, either. In areas where there is already strong competition in the hotel market, they might not be needed. And it’s important that the ministry has the capacity to manage the licensing process.

But there are plenty of destinations around Myanmar that could benefit from more quality, small-scale accommodation options for foreign and domestic visitors. Why keep the doors closed any longer?

This editorial first appeared in the February 21 issue of Frontier. 

By NYAN HLAING LYNN

NAY PYI TAW — Military lawmakers have against opposed extending the mandate of a parliamentary commission led by ex-general Thura U Shwe Mann, continuing a long-running feud with the former parliamentary speaker.

In a coordinated display of protest, members of the military stood to show their opposition when the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw was asked yesterday to extend the mandate of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission by 12 months.

The proposal still passed easily due to the National League for Democracy’s large majority, but military lawmakers said afterwards that the commission’s activities were “illegal”.

Lieutenant-Colonel Myo Htet Win said the commission had been drafting and amending laws, and submitting them to parliamentary bodies, so its authority was “overlapped” with that of the bill committees.

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“At present the authority is split” between the commission and bill committees, he said. “That’s why we objected.”

Myo Htet Win told reporters that the objection was not because of the military’s rivalry with the NLD or dislike of Shwe Mann. “We are not competing to win,” he said. “We are doing our duty to point out something illegal.”

The proposal passed 295 to 179. As secret voting was used, it was unclear which lawmakers sided with the military’s 166-member bloc.

Shwe Mann is considered a traitor by many in the military because of his long-running feud with former president U Thein Sein and his close relationship with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

After the 2015 election, Aung San Suu Kyi rewarded him with the chairmanship of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission. The commission has broad responsibilities and the position has enabled him to become one of the state counsellor’s closest advisers.

But it has also antagonised the military, whose lawmakers opposed the commission’s creation back in March 2016. When its mandate first came up for renewal on February 27, 2017, Tatmadaw lawmakers also stood up to show their opposition.

In May 2017, 50 Tatmadaw lawmakers signed a letter to the Constitutional Tribunal asking it to check if the commission was in accordance with the constitution.

The tribunal decided that the commission was permitted under the constitution.

“We understand the decision of the tribunal and we obeyed it. But we object [to extending the mandate] because its authority is overlapped [with the bill committees],” Myo Htet Win said.

Why keep the doors closed any longer?

FOR THE past couple of years, the small hilltop town of Thandaunggyi has been the petri dish for an experiment in hotel licensing.

The usual rules on licensing – that a property had to have at least 20 rooms for a hotel licence, or 10 for a guesthouse – remain in place. But an extra category has been created, for bed and breakfasts, or B&Bs.

These must still meet some criteria; guests and hosts must stay in different buildings, and each room must have its own bathroom, for example. There are also requirements that a local partner has at least some ownership.

But the crucial difference is that B&Bs can have as few as four guest rooms. In Thandaunggyi, this has enabled more than half-a-dozen local families to enter the tourism business by converting their properties into lodging quarters. For most of them, 10 rooms would have simply been too great an investment to contemplate.

As a new and little-known destination, guest numbers would also not have been high enough to justify the investment. For evidence, consider Exhibit A: the mouldering foundations of bungalow-style rooms at a planned hotel site on the winding road into Thandaunggyi.

While the broader tourism project at Thandaunggyi hasn’t been perfect – more needs to be done to develop activities in the area, in particular – the owners of the B&Bs seem pleased with the results. In a sign of the growing power of domestic tourism, the number of local guests at the B&Bs has far exceeded foreigners.

The B&B licensing has achieved its aim. The money from lodging fees goes into the community rather than to outside investors, and guests can enjoy the experience of having a local host and more intimate accommodation. The B&Bs have started to kickstart a tourism economy – restaurants, guides, souvenirs – that simply wouldn’t have existed without them.

Given this, it seems absurd that Thandaunggyi is still the only area of the country to benefit from this opportunity.

In truth though, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has never been particularly supportive of the B&B plan, despite including draft B&B standards in the 2013 Community Involvement in Tourism policy. A handful of community-based tourism initiatives were subsequently launched, often with donor support. Some have been very successful, including a village-stay project at Myaing Township, in rural Magway Region.

Despite the change of government, the ministry has maintained its focus on promoting large-scale tourism. In its perfect world, visitors would fly around the country, stick to the more famous destinations, stay in expensive hotels and buy as many overpriced souvenirs as they can stuff in their suitcase.

Twenty years ago, this strategy might have made sense, and it still caters to a particular market. The problem is though that this market is shrinking — and the longer that Myanmar fails to respond to changing trends in the industry, the further it will fall behind other countries in the region. Those trends include a desire to engage more with local people, be closer to the natural environment and visit new, less developed destinations. B&Bs can cater to this demand in a way that hotels cannot. Yes, accommodation for foreign (and local) visitors needs to be safe and sanitary. But it doesn’t necessarily have to come in a large package.

A glance at Myanmar’s tourism arrival statistics tells you that all is not well in the industry. After a phenomenal increase in the first years of the Thein Sein government, there’s been very little real growth for a couple of years.

Some of that can be attributed to events in Rakhine State, which have put many Western travellers off visiting. But there are many other issues at play, including lack of promotion and poor infrastructure. Myanmar remains an expensive destination with a heavy focus on (mostly Buddhist) cultural attractions.

That’s not to say that a national rollout of B&B licences is the way forward, either. In areas where there is already strong competition in the hotel market, they might not be needed. And it’s important that the ministry has the capacity to manage the licensing process.

But there are plenty of destinations around Myanmar that could benefit from more quality, small-scale accommodation options for foreign and domestic visitors. Why keep the doors closed any longer?

This editorial first appeared in the February 21 issue of Frontier.