Junta hosts junket for Chinese travel agents in bid to attract tourists

Foreign visitors to Myanmar fell drastically following the Covid-19 pandemic and 2021 military coup.
By RFA Burmese
Junta hosts junket for Chinese travel agents in bid to attract tourists Foreign tourists offer joss sticks as they visit Myanmar’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon on April 28, 2019.
(Thein Zaw/AP)

More than 40 Chinese travel agency employees and social media influencers were given a junta-led tour of Mandalay, Yangon and the ancient city of Bagan last month in the latest effort by Myanmar’s military rulers to boost a dwindling tourism industry.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the chaos and fighting that have plagued the country following the 2021 military coup have combined to deal a significant blow to tourism numbers.

More than 4 million tourists visited Myanmar in 2019, according to the World Tourism Federation. Those numbers plummeted to 130,000 in 2021 and 230,000 in 2022. 

Even Bagan – a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to soaring spires and iconic Buddhist pagodas and temples – remains empty of tour groups, according to a tour guide who, like other sources in this story, wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“Since the coup d’état, Bagan has had a complete absence of foreign visitors,” he told Radio Free Asia. “Recently, guests from Spain emailed me expressing their desire to explore Bagan, but they also emphasized that Myanmar is not a safe destination given the current situation.”

The Chinese delegation arrived for their visit – officially referred to as the “Myanmar-China Tourism Promotion Familiarization Trip” – on May 10. They were also scheduled to visit the seat of government, Naypyidaw, and the beach resort town of Ngwe Saung.

“The aim is to boost the number of Chinese tourists visiting Myanmar’s destinations and raise awareness of Myanmar’s destinations in the Chinese tourism market,” according to the junta-controlled Myanmar News Agency

‘Irreparable damage’ to the industry

But two foreign tour operators said they didn’t think the effort would attract a rush of Chinese tourists.

“If you inquire whether success can be achieved, the answer is negative,” one of the tour operators said.

Most people have already determined that a leisurely visit to Myanmar’s most popular tourism sites would be “impossible” due to the situation on the ground, he said, referring to the armed conflict in much of the country between various anti-junta forces and the military.

There continue to be frequent shortages of electricity – something that has already forced some hotels to close, the second tour operator said.

“Over the past four years, the tourism industry has suffered irreparable damage,” he said. “Unless the underlying issues are addressed, inviting guests won’t attract visitors. After all, why would Chinese tourists risk their safety in an insecure destination?”

More visitors, more currency

International flights resumed to Myanmar in April 2022, more than a year after the coup. Since then, junta officials have attempted a number of tourism promotion strategies, and in 2023, the number of foreign visitors was recorded as 1.28 million.

Junta-controlled newspapers reported last month that Myanmar received 350,000 foreign tourists between January and March 2024, with China being the largest source, followed by Thailand.

But those numbers may simply reflect the type of visas people select when traveling to Myanmar for business or other purposes, several tour guides and travel agencies officials told RFA. It’s easier to enter Myanmar on a tourism visa than with other visa categories, they said.

The increase in visitors – for whatever purpose – brings in much needed foreign currency, a Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism spokesman said.

“The recent surge in tourist arrivals has significantly boosted revenue,” he said. “During the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism came to a standstill due to travel restrictions. But the situation has improved, and visitors are gradually returning.”

The junta has also made efforts to attract Indian and Russian visitors. Last September, it announced direct flights from Yangon and Mandalay to Russia’s third most populous city, Novosibirsk.

Translated by Kalyar Lwin. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.


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