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Visa-free travel looms for Thais heading to Myanmar

Kingdom will be next country to benefit: Minister

Some time this year, Thai tourists may not require visas to visit Myanmar, as the exemption process has started, according to the neighbouring country's tourism minister.

Hotels and Tourism Minister Htay Aung told The Nation in an exclusive interview that his ministry was currently processing the review of visa exemptions for Thai nationals.

Most visitors to Myanmar are from Thailand, followed by China, Japan and South Korea. Myanmar is also popular among visitors from the United States, France, Germany and Italy.

Htay Aung said the visa exemption might happen this year as Myanmar is taking the Asean chairmanship and Asean economic integration is coming at the end of 2015.

Myanmar has already abolished visa requirements for nationals from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.

"The next will be the Kingdom of Thailand. This is what I am thinking, but I cannot say exactly when it will happen," the minister said on the sidelines of "Myanmar Hospitality & Tourism Conference 2014".

Last year, Myanmar received an all-time high number of 2.04 million tourist arrivals, which was a 93-per-cent rise from the previous year. Tourism revenue reached US$926 million (about Bt30 billion), compared with $534 million in 2012.

The country is expecting to welcome 3 million tourists this year, mostly from neighbouring countries such as Thailand and China.

Htay Aung admitted that Myanmar was yet to tackle some bottlenecks that might hinder the growth of the tourism industry, which is a major source of foreign income. Complaints are growing about airport congestion, the lack of English-speaking guides, and hotel rooms and prices.

Bottlenecks, rising hotel fees

"In terms of the bottleneck at the [Yangon] airport, you see we divert some of the airlines to go to other international airports [in] Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw," he said.

To cope with the huge demand for hotels that has led to skyrocketing room rates, the ministry is encouraging investment in new hotels. The Myanmar Tourism Master Plan 2013-2020 was launched as a guideline.

The ministry is also reviewing the Tourism Law together with the World Tourism Organisation, to update it and make it more effective.

At the end of 2013, there were 923 hotels with 34,834 rooms in Myanmar. Foreign companies have been involved in the development of 39 projects with 8,029 rooms, and 30 projects with 5,207 rooms have been completed. The other six projects with 1,979 rooms are under construction and three new projects have just received approval.

Htay Aung is most concerned with the development of human resources for the industry. An undergraduate programme in tourism was initiated in 2012 at the National Management College in Yangon and Mandalay. The first lot will graduate in 2016.

"Now we have about 400 students taking the courses. We have also been implementing scholarship programmes for tourism students to pursue further learning with assistance of development partner countries and educational institutions," he said.

Aside from university-level education, there is some vocational training. Short courses have been introduced.

Htay Aung said Myanmar had to make a tremendous effort to harness tourism for poverty alleviation, preservation of cultural assets, and conservation of the natural environment.

To ensure a multi-stakeholder commitment to address the challenges in the tourism industry, the ministry has developed a "Policy on Community Involvement in Tourism" to grow community-based tourism systematically.

There will be a lot of work down the road for Myanmar in tourism development and the country cannot do it alone. It still needs experience and expertise from international partners, he concluded.


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