Myanmar struggling to handle new surge in visitors

JOCELYN GECKER Associated Press Published:

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Now that Myanmar is opening to the outside world, good luck getting a hotel room.

Travelers and eager investors are pouring in to explore one of Asia's most untouched countries, filling hotels to capacity, doubling room rates and spilling flight reservations onto wait lists..

As the country sheds its past as an isolated military dictatorship and taboo travel destination it is becoming a new global hotspot -- topping tourism lists as the must-see place to visit in 2012.

Myanmar is eager for the hard currency that foreigners bring, but is struggling to handle the influx. At the same time, it is wondering how widely to throw open the doors -- should it become another well-trodden tourist haven like Thailand or should it aim for fewer, less-transformative numbers of visitors to keep its ancient cultural sights and charm intact?

For now, Myanmar is the sort of time-warped place that adventurous travelers love. It is an Asian Buddhist wonderland with red-robed monks and bicycle rickshaws where British colonial relics line the streets. There are no Starbucks or McDonald's or name-brand Western hotels, but some of that will soon change.

New laws are being drafted to make it easier and tax-friendly for foreign hotel chains and others to do business in Myanmar. Auctions are under way for dozens of colonial buildings that some developers want to restore as boutique hotels and others want to tear down. Tourism authorities say the country needs more restaurants that cater to international tastes, more car rental agencies, more airplanes to shuttle tourists to the sacred temples in Bagan, more English-speaking tour guides, more everything.

"We especially need more hotels. We need big chain hotels," said Kyi Kyi Aye, a consultant to the government's Myanmar Tourism Board who is helping promote the country abroad and court foreign investment. "Tourism is booming and that means we have many challenges to overcome."

Travel agents offer these tips for those planning a trip: Bring heaps of cash because Myanmar is a cash-only economy. With rare exception, credit cards are not accepted. Leave iPhones and BlackBerrys at home because foreign mobile phones don't work here. Be prepared for hot, sweaty sightseeing because taxis are decades-old jalopies without air conditioning.

In 2011, the number of tourist arrivals jumped nearly 30 percent. But Myanmar still received only 816,000 visitors that year, a tiny fraction of the 19 million that visited neighboring Thailand.

Yangon currently has 5,000 hotel rooms but only 3,000 that are considered "suitable for tourists," according to Maung Maung Swe, the vice chairman at the Myanmar Tourism Board, who told The Irrawaddy online magazine that chains like the Marriott and Sheraton have expressed interest in opening branches.

That would come as a relief to hotel managers like Ram Nurani of the 330-room Park Royal Hotel, where these days every table is full at breakfast, every sofa is taken in the busy lobby and rooms are booked weeks in advance.

"It would be nice to have a hotel you could stretch by a couple of floors," Nurani said, half-jokingly. "The city needs to build more hotels quickly."

The scene is the same across town at The Strand, one of the grand colonial hotels of Southeast Asia where Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham slept back when the country was still called Burma. Rooms now start at $550 a night.

"We're fully booked for the whole month. We try our best to get people rooms at other hotels, but it's not easy," said hotel employee Khin Sandar, who sat in the chandaliered lobby on a recent afternoon when a busload of tourists surged in and were politely escorted out.

Another popular tourist attraction is Aung San Suu Kyi, the dignified 66-year-old who became the world's most famous political prisoner while locked under house arrest for two decades.

A busload of South Koreans crowded into her rundown opposition party headquarters in Yangon on a recent morning to take pictures and buy T-shirts printed with the face of the Nobel Peace laureate, who was not on the premises.

"We went to her house, too, and took pictures in front of her gate," said Sylvia Rhee, a university music professor from Jinju, South Korea, expressing surprise at the access they gained.

"This used to be a closed country. We were afraid to visit before," she said.

The increase in tourist arrivals started after Myanmar held elections in November 2010 and then released Suu Kyi, who is now running for a seat in parliament.

Amid the rush to welcome the world's tourists, there are calls to avoid the pitfalls of nearby countries like Thailand which benefited from mass tourism while its cities have turned into urban jungles that are magnets for backpackers and sex tourism.

Some have suggested aiming for a limited, higher-end tourism market like Bhutan.

"Although we're way behind, I don't think it's a bad thing. We want to handle Myanmar with care. It's like a fragile thing," said Su Su Tin, who runs a travel agency and is an executive member of a consortium of more than 100 hotels, airlines and tour operators.

Initial discussions with the Tourism Ministry about handing out visas on arrival were shelved after it was decided that it's best to continue limiting tourist arrivals for now.

"We all agreed we should wait to start visas on arrival because that would definitely make travel to Myanmar easier, and anybody could come, but we're not ready for that yet," Su Su Tin said.

Conservationists say the handle-with-care approach should be applied to Myanmar's heritage.

Downtown Yangon is lined with grand, now-deserted colonial buildings that used to house government offices but were vacated after the junta built a distant new capital a few years ago in the city of Naypyitaw.

With real estate prices soaring, the government started to auction off some of the buildings last year but agreed to a brief moratorium on future sales and any demolition until a conservation strategy is drafted, said historian and preservationist Thant Myint.

"Rangoon is one of the last cities in Asia with a lot of its 19th and 20th century architecture intact," said Thant Myint. "We have a narrow window of opportunity to try to avoid the worst mistakes of the rest of the region."

Travelers like American tourist Barbara Ruttenberg agree.

"There are so few places left that haven't been taken over by McDonald's and Western customs," said Ruttenberg, of Providence, Rhode Island, on a tour with 20 other alumnae from Bryn Mawr college that was planned almost a year ago. A world traveler who has visited 44 countries, she had always wanted to see Myanmar but wouldn't have come while the junta still ruled.

"This was a dream deferred," said Ruttenberg, who turned 75 this month. "I gave it to myself as a birthday present. My kids wanted to throw me a party. I said, 'Forget the Party, I'm going to Burma.'"