The tourism industry in Myanmar, while not lacking in potential, is still underdeveloped. There has been a sharp rise in the number of tourists visiting Myanmar in 2012, and this number is only expected to increase. Myanmar has the appeal of being an exotic and somewhat unspoiled destination for Western tourists, while many Asian tourists are attracted to its religious sites.
Travel Agencies & Tour Operators
With the increasing number of foreign tourists visiting Myanmar there is a need for professional tour operators and companies. There are already a few agencies in Yangon directed by foreigners, but we expect to see an increase in the number of boutique agents in specific niches like adventure travel or ecotourism. Foreign investors wishing to start a tour company can do so under the Myanmar Companies Act because it is unlikely that the MIC will approve a small venture such of this kind.
There are a few destinations that foreign investors may want to consider when looking at Myanmar’s tourism industry. We’ve highlighted each of them below.
Unlike in neighboring Thailand, which has a plethora of beach resorts, diving spots, and international standard hotels, the coastline of Myanmar is almost completely undeveloped. Currently there are three major beach destinations in Myanmar: Chaung Tha, Ngwe Saung, and Ngapoli.
Chaung Tha is the closest beach to Yangon and attracts a large number of domestic tourists each year. There are a number of quality hotels currently set up at the beach (all locally owned), but there is a general lack of infrastructure and other activities which are common in resort towns. There is also a lack of international style restaurants catering to foreign tourists, as most visitors to Chaung Tha are Myanmar. Investors looking for opportunities to set up a hotel would do well to take a look at Chaung Tha, as it is currently the most popular beach option in Myanmar. It remains to be seen whether Chaung Tha can expand its market and attract large numbers of foreign tourists, although its location is certainly an advantage.
Ngwe Saung is just a short distance from Chaung Tha, but is less developed and more natural. It’s beach is somewhat more attractive and certainly much quieter than Chaung Tha’s. Because it is less developed, there are more opportunities and better plots of land available at Ngwe Saung. Many tour operators are pushing for Ngwe Saung to become a more up-market destination with suitable accommodation for foreign guests. But in order for it to become a truly international destination, the road network and the level of customer service will have to be upgraded. There are whispers in Yangon that international hotel chains may be looking to set up operations at Ngwe Saung, but as of yet we have seen no concrete investment. Some of the current hotels at Ngwe Saung have beautiful facilities, so foreign companies looking to manage hotels may find some opportunities here.
Ngapali is considered by most to be the most beautiful beach in Myanmar. It is also the hardest to get to, so most visitors arrive here by air. Ngapali caters to foreign tourists and upper class Myanmar, whereas many of the facilities in Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung are aimed at the Myanmar middle class. Ngapali’s white sand beach certainly has enormous potential – the real issue is making it easier to access. Most of the travelers who arrive at Ngapali do so on package tours, so there is some space in the independent traveler market for savvy tour operators. With improved infrastructure and an intelligent international marketing campaign, Ngapali has the potential to become an international standard beach destination.
The Southern Coast
Looking at a map, the Southern coast of Myanmar represents an enormous opportunity. It’s just across the isthmus from Thailand’s world-famous beaches, and the scenery and geography of the area are very similar to Thailand. However, there are many challenges to overcome in order to attract tourists. Currently there is a complete lack of infrastructure, and for years it was almost completely off-limits to foreign visitors. There are no real resort style towns on the coastline – mostly just small market towns and villages.
If massive infrastructure projects are completed and the area is opened up for more exploration, the potential for scuba diving and leisure travel on the coast and around the nearby islands is enormous. Currently there are a couple of cruise boat operators that take tourists from Thailand and Yangon to these islands (called the Myeik Archipelago) for diving, but this industry is still very much in its infancy.
Tourists not interested in beaches, and those looking for beautiful natural scenery, find the Inlay Lake area of Shan State very appealing. There is already an established tourist industry at Inlay Lake, with many guesthouses, small hotels and trekking companies. Investors looking at this area should know that the government has allotted a new area of Inlay Lake to be a special Hotel Zone, and investing in this zone is still very much possible. Like most destinations in Myanmar, Inlay Lake is slated to become more popular as Myanmar becomes a standard piece of the tourist circuit in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar people are very proud of Bagan, and for many tourists it is truly an amazing place. With the lifting of sanctions and the new environment of optimism in Myanmar, tourists who have wanted to visit Bagan for a long time are now free to do so, resulting in a jump in tourist numbers in 2012. We envision the future of Bagan to be similar to that of Siam Reap in Cambodia – a must see destination when visiting the country. Bagan has been catering to foreign tourists for quite a while now, so it has a relatively large number of options for accommodation and dining. However, we still see room at the upper edge of the hospitality market in Bagan for five-star hotels, luxury spas, and fine dining restaurants. Local investors recognize Bagan’s potential and have pushed up property prices – especially in Bagan’s hotel zone – but we think the opportunities are there for long-term businesses in Bagan.
The Far North
Myanmar’s Kachin State, in the far North of the country, is a mountainous region at the foot of the Himalayas that receives good amounts of annual snowfall. Myanmar companies are currently undertaking some exploration in this area to look for possible tourist destinations. Although you shouldn’t expect a ski resort to open in Myanmar anytime soon, Kachin state does offer a lot of untouched natural beauty, and there is potential to open boutique resorts or hotels in the region. One thing to remember about this area though, is that it remains extremely difficult to get to, and there are currently still conflicts between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, making investment virtually impossible at the moment. This area is one to watch out for in the future.