Myanmar turns into hot tourist destination

When Daniel and Susy Florens booked a five-star honeymoon with stops in some of Asia’s premier luxury destinations, Myanmar seemed like just another stop on the itinerary. They had agreed to take a five-day cruise along the Irrawaddy River on the recommendation of a trusted travel agent.

But as their sailing date neared, Florens, who owns electronics stores across Mexico, wondered about Myanmar’s political situation and the standard of the cruise ship’s accommodations. “I thought I was coming to a place with a lot of soldiers in the streets, and barricades,” he recalled. “And I imagined the ship was an old boat in Louisiana.”

But the atmosphere in Myanmar’s cultural and business centre, Yangon, was welcoming, and the cruise ship was well appointed, with teak and jade furnishings, modern amenities and a rooftop pool. Two nights into the journey, Florens said he thought the service and accommodation were on par with that of the five-star hotels where he and his wife had stayed in Tokyo and Shanghai.

“I am going to tell my brother-in-law, 'You know, you have to do this,”' Florens said, sipping a lemon-grass-flavour iced tea on the pool deck as the ship sailed past marshes and the occasional cluster of riverside huts. His only complaint - and it was more of an afterthought - was that the wireless Internet service was patchy.

Myanmar, once a pariah state that was ruled for decades by a repressive military junta, is emerging from two years of landmark political and economic liberalisation. And even as ethnic and religious tensions continue to smolder in its hinterlands, the country’s hospitality industry is already scrambling to meet rising demand for hotels and services.Slightly more than one million international visitors arrived here last year - about a third and a sixth of the numbers that travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam, respectively - but the year-over-year growth rate of nearly 30 per cent was Southeast Asia’s fastest-rising, according to a recent report by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in Myanmar.

And the country’s average hotel rate rose to $137 in 2012 from $66 in 2011, matching Cambodia’s 2012 hotel rate and exceeding those of Thailand and Vietnam, according to data compiled by STR Global, a market forecast company. “It happened in a year and a half where suddenly the country was thrown open, and everyone lifted their travel advisories not to go to Myanmar,” said Steven Schipani, a tourism expert at the Asian Development Bank in Bangkok, which, along with the Norwegian government, financed the tourism ministry’s study. “Now, with the opening, it’s the hot new destination.”

For now at least, river cruises capture only a small fraction of Myanmar’s tourist arrivals - 14,653 people last year - but they cater to high-end travellers who often spend thousands of dollars per person during their stays. River cruises have the advantage of sidestepping two of Myanmar’s major tourism shortcomings: poor roads and a lack of upscale accommodation. The country has just two hotels that meet international luxury standards: The Governor’s Residence and The Strand, both in Yangon.

Limited development

Part of the allure for some tourists is tracing the footsteps of the British writers George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling, said Bill Barnett, the managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a Thailand-based hospitality consultancy. Another, he added, is the country’s comparatively limited development in comparison to that of its Southeast Asian neighbours. “Myanmar is a great brand,” Barnett said. “It’s an exotic destination - people want to see it.”

Some operators market cruises in this country, formerly known as Burma, as nostalgic throwbacks to its British colonial past. Florens and Romano Florens, the Mexican newlyweds, cruised between the cities of Bagan and Mandalay on a ship that takes its name - The Road to Mandalay - from a famous Kipling poem. The ship, operated by the London-based luxury hotel company Orient-Express, travelled the Rhine River in Germany before it began sailing here in 1995.

A copy of the poem and some vintage nautical maps hang on the corridor walls, and the dining room’s lamps and wood furnishings convey a vintage air. At one point in the cruise, the ship’s hotel manager, Steve Locke, pointed to a village on the riverbank where Burmese and British troops in 1826 formally ended the first Anglo-Burmese war.

The historical references were aided by the scenery: Aside from bridges and some telephone wires, the view from the boat was largely of empty marshes, rudimentary villages and the occasional gold-leafed Buddhist pagoda. An observer could easily wonder whether it had looked the same in the 1800s.

On the cruise’s third day, Locke waved across the river at a ship passing in the other direction. The Orcaella, which Orient-Express launched in July for journeys of seven and 11 nights along the Irrawaddy and nearby Chindwin River, cruises from Yangon to remote destinations near the Myanmar-India border.

The Orcaella is a response to what Eddie Teh, the company’s general manager for Myanmar cruises, called a dramatic increase in demand for river cruising in the country since 2011. He said that most guests came from the United States but that in the last two years, the number of travellers from Southeast Asia - now its second-largest market - had increased.

Prices on the Road to Mandalay, which can accommodate 82 passengers, begin at $2,520 per person for three-night cruises and $4,030 for 11 nights, while the Orcaella starts at $5,040 for seven nights and $5,610 for 11 nights. Domestic transfers are included in the fares.

Orient-Express is among the early pioneers of Myanmar river cruising, but it increasingly faces competition from rivals offering river journeys at similar or cheaper fares. For example, two Yangon-based companies, Amara Group and the Ayravata Cruise Co., operate two cruise ships each. And Singapore-based Pandaw Cruises, founded in the mid-1990s by a historian from Scotland, has six ships sailing in Myanmar and four in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Sven Zika, Pandaw’s sales and marketing manager, said the company planned to add three new ships in Myanmar by March 2014 as a way of serving increasing demand. He said the company’s clients continued to be primarily from the United States, Britain and Australia, adding that Burmese travelers were not a major part of the market.

The Swiss company Thurgau Travel has introduced two Myanmar river cruisers since 2010, said Karl Pauli, the head of the company’s Myanmar cruises. Mr. Pauli added that, despite a regular seasonal dip in tourist arrivals during the summer months, the ships’ average annual occupancy rate was about 90 percent, and most guests were Swiss.River cruising, however, doesn’t appeal to all high-end travelers who visit Myanmar seeking culture and history, for the simple reason that cruise boats limit the possibilities for overland exploration, said Willem Niemeijer, the chief executive of Thailand-based Khiri Travel Group, which organizes itineraries across Southeast Asia.

Cruising can be pleasant, but it is questionable whether it is an authentic way to see Myanmar and interact with local communities,  Niemeijer added. “I think not - basically you’re in a capsule,” he said.

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