amid conflict travel flickers back to life in myanmar - Amid Conflict, Travel Flickers Back to Life in Myanmar

Thingyan week in mid-April 2022 was a boon for hotels and travel businesses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The traditional new year holiday saw over 16,000 domestic visitors flock to the state’s tourist sites. Others went to celebrate the Thingyan water festival, like the one organized by the powerful Arakan Army.

Sixteen thousand visitors over the course of a week is not much, but is triple the number who visited Rakhine for all of 2021. Planes and hotels were booked out, even with prices doubling since last year’s coup. It was a relief for Rakhine’s tourism industry, which has suffered in recent years. For comparison, 170,000 travelers visited Rakhine in 2017; 14,000 in 2018, just after the Rohingya crisis; 140,000 in 2019; and 50,000 in 2020.

Other destinations reported similar surges. The temple town of Bagan welcomed over 200,000 arrivals. Mon State’s famous Kyaiktiyo pagoda saw 45,000 visitors. Hotels were reported to be fully booked near popular beaches in Chaungthar, Ngwesaung, and the Myeik archipelago. Travelers also went to Shwe Settaw, Inle Lake, and hill stations like Pyin Oo Lwin and Kalaw. Yangon saw traffic jams as visitors went on road trips or returned to visit family.

Also in mid-April, Myanmar resumed scheduled international flights. This was two years after suspending flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Online visa services were reinstated while quarantine and testing requirements for international arrivals were relaxed. Domestic travel guidelines were also relaxed, such as no longer requiring COVID-19 testing for internal flights.

The State Administration Council (SAC) military government is upbeat on reopening the country to international visitors. In July 2021, SAC deputy leader Soe Win, who heads the National Tourism Development Central Committee, said 0.5 to 1.8 million tourists were expected in 2023. The military government is also assuring domestic and international travelers of the COVID-19 and security situations in main tourism destinations.

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COVID-19 and the Coup

The reality is COVID-19 and the coup d’etat have devastated Myanmar’s international tourism industry and image. The sector was already struggling in mid-2020, as foreign arrivals collapsed due to the pandemic. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), foreign visitors spent $2.84 billion in 2019. This dropped to $460 million in 2020. Tourism’s overall contribution to Myanmar’s GDP dropped from $5.5 billion (5.9 percent of GDP) in 2019 to $2 billion (2.2 percent) in 2020.

A May 2020 survey found that 80 percent of tourism-related businesses had been “extremely badly” affected by COVID-19. Yangon’s iconic Strand Hotel stopped operations in March 2020. Naypyidaw’s Kempinski Hotel, which hosted President Barack Obama during his visit in November 2014, closed in October 2021. A few hotels continued operations with reduced staffing as quarantine centers for repatriates and visiting diplomats.

Just before the coup in January 2021, the head of the main travel association said that 70 percent of tourism sector jobs were made redundant. In December 2021, a local tour operator estimated up to 95 percent of travel and tour companies had halted operations.

While there has always been emphasis on “cronies” with political connections, over 90 percent of businesses in the travel and tourism sector are micro and small enterprises without special benefits, military ties, or safety nets. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government prioritized the tourism sector in its COVID-19 economic relief plan but businesses faced difficulties in accessing the loans on offer. The SAC has implemented very few relief measures since the coup.

This has left many travel and tourism businesses near collapse. Nearly 2 million people directly and indirectly involved in the sector are estimated to have become unemployed since COVID-19 started. A member of the Shan State Hotel and Tourism Association said “hundreds of thousands” with tourism-related livelihoods in southern Shan State were jobless. Similar stories are heard in other tourism-dependent locations like Bagan and Inle Lake.

On top of all this, the National Unity Government (NUG) and other opponents of the SAC regime have called for international tourism boycotts. They say foreign visitors will help the junta claim normalcy and earn foreign currency. Local businesses disagree with blanket boycotts, instead requesting tourists to show solidarity by avoiding military-linked businesses.

Domestic Travel

With international tourism paralyzed, travel and tour businesses can only turn to domestic travel to save themselves from ruin. Domestic travel grew from 3.1 million in 2011-2012 to 7.1 million in 2016-17, and likely reached 10 million before the pandemic. The WTTC reports local tourists spent $1.5 billion in 2019 and nearly $1 billion in 2020.

Domestic travel has picked up pace since October, but continues to be affected by insecurity, the political situation, and economic crisis. The SAC operates many checkpoints along highways and requires travelers to always carry identity cards. Highways are subject to curfews and all vehicles have to spend the night on the wayside or rest stops. And a growing number of civilians have been wounded in killed in attacks on highway buses, cars, and checkpoints.

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Some People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) are also conducting mobile checks and toll collections. Anti-junta groups regularly warn against using certain roads as they ambush and mine junta troops. Some groups impose their own curfews or road closures. At times, they stop and make travelers participate in protest activities.

The NUG side also urges the public not to travel. They say domestic travel helps the SAC claim things are returning to normal, generates tax revenue, and disrupts PDF operations. Others warn against using state-owned airlines or bus services operated by military-affiliated businesses. Pro-NUG influencers have also requested that their followers donate to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) or for the resistance to buy weapons instead of traveling.

Conversely, the SAC is reopening domestic travel to project normalcy, restart the economy, and keep citizens distracted. The military government says it is prioritizing vaccinations for tourism and travel sector employees and expanding measures to reduce COVID-19 risks. It is also promoting travel destinations and festivals on state-controlled media.

Discounts and the banking sector’s partial refunctioning are motivating domestic travel to non-conflict areas. Non-governmental organizations and businesses are also resuming work travel. Travel businesses and hotels are openly advertising on social media again, and the responses have been favorable. Travel bloggers and pages now attract more views and engagements than many political accounts or news pages. More people are also sharing personal travel photos on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Some have even joked that they were conducting “beach strikes” against the SAC.

These types of activities were unimaginable just a few months ago. Could they be a sign of the public’s growing fatigue and numbness with the political conflict? Increased domestic travel, advertising, and the return of mundane content on social media do signal such. Life is more difficult and insecure than before but citizens appear more inclined to move on with life out of necessity.

They need not accept the coup or forgive the SAC’s actions. But there is a limit to how much they can put up with the pandemic’s impact and the political crisis. With no end in sight, people are switching from principled to more pragmatic world views. Some PDFs and their supporters are already complaining of being “let down” by the public’s growing indifference.

Local Voices

Two Yangon-based travel operators told the authors that business has picked up since December. They had to downsize their car fleets and workforce in 2020 but are now trying to re-expand to meet the new demand. The main destinations are “safe areas” like Bagan, Inle Lake, and Chaungthar. Travel time is now much longer because of security checkpoints.

The owner of a medium-sized hotel in an Irrawaddy delta town said her hotel has resumed operations after closing for two years. She had to let go of all her staff but many returned upon reopening as there were no other job opportunities. While guests were returning, operations have been affected by power cuts and high diesel prices.

A small-scale bus operator in Mandalay closed down his company since mid-2020. His buses plied between Mandalay and northern Shan State. Services were affected by conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups before the coup. Tolls levied by armed groups grew in 2020, reaching about $750 a year per bus. Many small lines have folded and are stuck with debt, unable to sell their buses.

The manager of a major restaurant on the Yangon-Mandalay Highway said visitor volume remains lower than before the pandemic. Traffic has increased since October but people are spending less. The restaurant has expanded to include overnight parking for travelers stuck because of curfew. Crime is now a major concern due to the insecurity.

Another restaurant operator in a major Mon State town said her restaurant is seeing near-normal level of travelers again. Customers wait things out at her establishment if they hear of nearby clashes. The conflict has become a reality of life and people just play it by ear when they travel.

A hotel operator in Monywa in Sagaing Region is selling his property as there were no visitors since the coup. The city has “dried up” due to conflict in surrounding townships and frequent road closures. While he remains sympathetic to the resistance, he said businesses are collapsing in Monywa and people getting fed up with conflict.

Meanwhile, the manager of a hotel in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, said business is very good since late 2021. The hotel now has high occupancy levels and was booked out for April of this year. Local tourists are visiting Sittwe as it is very safe even if tensions rise from time to time. A number of entertainment venues and “massage parlors” (brothels) have also migrated from the mainland to serve visitors.

A hotel operator in Ngapali beach, also in Rakhine State, said his hotel finally reopened in March 2022 after two years of closure. He had to restart everything, and hire and train new staff. April was good for business and the hotel had no vacancies. He hopes domestic tourists can continue to visit. However, he is uncertain of what lies ahead because of the political and economic situations.

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Finally, a Yangon-based international travel agent said the company had to retrench all staff in mid-2020. She has little hope for her small company of 23 years as very few tourists will now visit because of the coup. She said tourism boycotts will only harm locals and small businesses and the military had much bigger revenue streams like jade.

Looking Forward

Despite the SAC’s optimism, much more needs to be done before Myanmar can reopen to international tourism. Observers estimate it will take at least 3-5 years for Myanmar’s tourism sector to return to near-normal. Businesses hope the worst is behind them. However, this cannot be said with certainty due to local and global factors. Tourism infrastructure and human resources will need to be rebuilt and realigned with new expectations and realities.

The junta is looking to attract tourists from Asian and non-Western countries who may have fewer issues about visiting the country. This continues the NLD government’s efforts to pivot away from Western tourists after 2017. Myanmar will have to compete with neighboring countries, and new tourists might not spend as much.

Even if the people are traveling again, the civil war and insecurity continues. The military government can only do so much to contain the violence, prohibit travel to conflict areas and provide assurances to tourists. Provided they come in the first place. It will only be a matter of time before some incident occurs and again harms Myanmar’s tourism prospects.

Irrespective of how or when the political crisis is resolved, Myanmar’s international tourism image has been tarnished for the foreseeable future. There will still be many who are interested and intrigued to visit, and social visitors to check on families left behind. But it will take more than good branding or an end to the political crisis for the country to see a sizeable return of foreign tourists.

Domestic travel offers a lifeline and sandbox for Myanmar’s tourism sector to regain some footing and explore reopening to the world. As the industry has hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.