musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma

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It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.

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In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.

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Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.

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And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.

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And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.

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Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.

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Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.

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