For its 20th work anniversary in Myanmar, international tour agency Diethelm Travel decided to make a corporate donation to a charity rather than host a posh cocktail party for its staff.
“They [the staff] immediately responded by saying that caring is very important,” said Ms Lilli Saxer, Diethelm Travel Myanmar’s managing director. Diethelm’s 75-strong staff visited the See-Zar-Yeik (Twilight Villa) charity in Yangon’s East Dagon Township to donate, money food and other items to its ailing octogenarian residents. It’s the kind of caring service Ms Saxer said she hopes becomes the norm in Myanmar’s growing tourism sector.
“Myanmar has it all,” said Ms Saxer. “They have nature, they have beaches, they have history. If they put the right supply and services there, of course it will take off,” she said. Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has targeted 7.5 million tourist arrivals per year by 2020. In contrast, Thailand attracted more than 30 million tourists in 2015.
Ms Saxer first started working in Myanmar’s tourism sector in 1995 and has seen the bad old days when the country was under military rule, and the brief boom years after Myanmar shed its pariah status in 2011, sparking an influx of foreign tourists flocking to the country.
“The years 2012 and 2013 were excellent years for Diethelm,” she said. In 2014, Myanmar attracted more than 3 million foreign arrivals according to figures from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, up from less than 800,000 in 2010.
After the boom, Myanmar quickly earned itself a reputation for being over-priced and under-serviced. A shortage of hotel rooms allowed owners to charge exorbitant rates and set unreasonable stipulations on bookings, such as requiring that cancellations be made 45 days in advance.
Although prices have decreased somewhat as more hotels were built in popular tourist destinations, tours in Myanmar are still about 30 percent more expensive than similar tours in Vietnam or Thailand. Often with poor service thrown in.
“What we need is proper training schools for hotel staff and for tour guides. That’s what’s missing,” said Ms Saxer. “You don’t want comments from your clients that their room wasn’t clean, and that’s just because the girl doesn’t know how to clean,” she said.
While the tourism industry still suffers a shortage of hotel rooms and trained staff, the number of tour agencies has ballooned, from 1,670 in 2014 to 1,922 last year, data from the tourism ministry shows. Admittedly, many of these applied for tour licenses in order to deal in foreign exchange currencies, but the proliferation represents an increase in competition and less cake to be shared for the established operators.
“It’s not that things have really slowed down, it’s just you now have so many operators,” said Ms Saxer.
The solution will not be to reign in the tour agencies, but to make the kind of improvements needed in Myanmar’s service industry, and its supply, that will allow the tourism market to grow further.
“I think in the last years what we got were the adapter tourists, or tourists who just wanted to be the first to come to Myanmar and adapted to the situation,” said Mr Edwin Briels, general manager for Khiri Travel Myanmar. “And now what we’re going to get is the early majority, which is a bigger market,” he said.
Mr Briels notes that each year only about 250,000 international tourists visit Bagan, one of Myanmar’s biggest attractions, while about three million visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s prize tourism draw.
“I think we can do a lot more to make the cake bigger. And when that happens the real golden era for Myanmar tourism will begin,” he said.