Written by Staff Writer by Staff Writer by Jon Ostrower, CNN
There are many reasons why Burma (also known as Myanmar) has recently shifted gears from isolationism to a more open-minded approach, but one of the most important is the prospect of improving tourism to one of Asia’s most interesting, and more tumultuous, places.
More than a century ago, Burma’s capital, Yangon, was home to the elite. Now the country, which ended years of isolation in 2017, is preparing to open a 50-kilometer stretch of rail between the city and Mandalay.
Also opening soon will be Myanmar’s first international airport. Plans are also in place to restructure some of the nation’s most prominent cities: Kyaikkasan and Mandalay are being added to the rapidly growing “Ring Road” along the country’s lengthy coastline. A massive road building project will create boulevards and interchanges connecting about 80% of the population.
Notably, the country is also shifting the emphasis away from military-operated hotels. In 2017, the US State Department lowered its ranking of Myanmar from “non-listing” to “select,” meaning commercial hotels will no longer need military approval to operate.
At the same time, the government has made significant progress in liberalizing its airport, enforcing new laws that will limit bonded labor for construction sites, and insisting on a greater involvement from foreign businesses.
This shift in business was notably reflected by the arrival of Chinese hotelier Marriott Hotels — which, along with local developers, will oversee the construction of a $115 million hotel in Mandalay. Another example of a foreign hotel operator working to bring Chinese standards to Myanmar is Australian-owned Omni Hotels, which is opening its first Myanmar hotel on Kyaikkasan.
Opportunities for foreign investment are being sought at all levels, especially by young professionals who came to the country for jobs in the tourism industry, but are now beginning to realize that they have more to offer than traditional work in trade fairs and conferences. Many stayed in Yangon, the country’s most accessible city, for a number of years, but have now decided to find their own niche.
Wen Long Shun, a Bollywood-trained actress who now runs a design consultancy business in Yangon, and opened a new cafe at the northern end of the city’s famed Water Market a couple of years ago, told CNN that after interacting with more than 100 “pretty young ladies,” she realized that “youth in Myanmar is growing quickly.” Her remarks were echoed by other young entrepreneurs, like Adam Ari Lavallero, a Burma-born former search engine operator, who established his own socially responsible personal-commerce website business — Haute Taxation — at the north end of Yangon last year.
One big caveat is the lack of legal representation. Current regulations allow visa and travel documents only for individuals authorized by Myanmar’s Ministry of Immigration and Population. It’s estimated that fewer than half of the country’s population of 50 million have any legal representation to make decisions on behalf of themselves or their families.
Many of the remaining challenges still concern procedural compliance. A waiting list of more than 10,000 individuals stretching across several months just has a registration form, which could take weeks for acceptance.
And yet, for most travelers, it’s hard to hear the call for more legal documentation and interpreters, and to ignore the potential for hundreds of thousands of more visitors. The return of tourism could be an economic windfall for both the country and its people, helping to drive economic growth, and contributing to the creation of well-educated, well-paid work for the descendants of Myanmar’s immigrants, including millions of Bangladeshis.
“It would definitely help their employment opportunities,” said Christoph Ingutz, Myanmar expert and professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
However, it would be a misnomer to describe tourism as a major employment generator. A flight from the Yangon international airport to Mandalay is about $50, roughly half the cost of an average local salary. Just in the first three months of last year, the government showed preliminary figures of some $30 million in “infrastructure revenue” — mostly from the sale of concessions in adjacent construction zones.