What can we expect from Myanmar tourism?

Forging a path to world stage requires sustainable long-term solutions, and political and humanitarian faultlines could create headaches

The Southeast Asian state of Myanmar is set to open to tourism in early 2022 after a three-year hiatus. So what can we expect?

To climb the Myanmar mountains

It will be far harder to get to Myanmar from Britain than it was for many tourists before the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Rohingya forced many over the border. But despite the risks, climate change and a lack of infrastructure are expected to create huge opportunities for adventurers.

Myanmar is one of the highest-altitude countries in the world and one of the most populated. Peak regions like the northern and eastern Kachin state, where tens of thousands of Rohingya live, are prime terrain for climbing. The trek from the border to Kyaukphyu, the largest city in Rakhine state, is 1,600km and would take two months to complete in a car – and nine months if it were on foot.

Rowing in the Irrawaddy river Photograph: Jaya Pinda/Getty Images

But consider the resources that are available and the outlook for a certain subset of adventurers, says Margaret Wesley, Asia and north America editor at Lonely Planet: “It’s the tens of thousands of people who have an interest in doing difficult, unattractive expeditions that are often very rough.”

And few places offer experience beyond the burbling Irrawaddy. “I can’t see half of the places we’ve considered,” Wesley adds. “The uniqueness of the infrastructure in the Irrawaddy is just breathtaking.”

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There are plans to build a new monorail system for journey from tourist centres in Mandalay, Mandalay international airport and Yangon’s central business district and central railway station, as well as a railway link between Mandalay city and the city’s heritage sites, but these remain in the concept phase. At least 135 hotels are also planned for the city.

Local options

There is little room for tourists in most of Myanmar’s locations. Not only are there few options for those with a decent level of fitness, there are few cultural and natural places to visit in the country, says Michel Seckbach, a friend of Malaysia’s top mountain climber, Toh Sin Lin.

In western Myanmar, there are less than a dozen national parks, national forests, tourist resorts, wetlands, islands and mountains, and the famous forests of the Irrawaddy and Mayan monasteries all are shared with the neighbouring countries. Even the lower reaches of the Irrawaddy (approximately 4,000m) lie in the Chinese exclusive economic zone.

Myanmar can look forward to visitor numbers of 2 million a year, according to Raiko, its representative. “That’s much more than many countries see in a whole year and that’s only for those who seek adventure,” he says. “It’s also a numbers game, which means they need to ensure that visitors are coming from the right countries.” It is a far more important consideration than ethnic politics, he adds.

And that leaves the moment when the country stands to turn from a wartime pariah to one which might enter the ranks of middle-income member states on the globe. And that is a very different story indeed.

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