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With Improved Political Situation, Myanmar's Hard-Hit Hoteliers
Cautiously Optimistic, Tourism Slowly Returning

By Peter Janssen, dpa, BerlinMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 11, 2011--YANGON -- Myanmar's tourism industry has hit some snags in its efforts to attract international guests.

For one, the nation was called "a pariah state" from 1988 to 2010, during military junta rule.

Added to this, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party encouraged tourists to boycott state-owned businesses.

The NLD even considered issuing a list of junta-connected hotels, airlines, shops, and restaurants to help tourists enjoy their holiday guiltlessly, diplomats said.

But before the list debuted, the political situation improved.

Myanmar staged its first general election in 20 years on November 7, bringing to power a pro-military government led by ex-General President Thein Sein.

On August 19, Thein Sein invited Suu Kyi to the capital Naypyitaw for private talks, a significant reconciliatory step between the government/military and opponents.

Suu Kyi's recent, guardedly optimistic statements have benefited Myanmar's languishing tourism industry.

"She does not say, 'don't come to visit Myanmar, anymore,' which is very positive," said Didier Belmonte, general manager of The Strand Hotel. "She obviously has a certain influence over the European and American markets."

According to government figures, 197,678 tourists visited Myanmar between January to July this year, of whom 40,174 were from Western Europe, and 12,990 from North America.

Last year, some 295,147 tourists -- mostly business people in search of new markets -- visited the country.

"The potential for Myanmar is looking good, that's why all the hotels here are filled with corporate business," said Aung Myat Kyaw, chairman of the privately run Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board.

High corporate occupancy rates are a statistical anomaly, experts said. Hotels transformed parts of their hotel real estate portfolios into office space during the tourism drought, which makes the occupancy rates look inflated.

For example, in Yangon, Traders Hotel and Inya Lake Hotel turned entire floors into offices after occupancy rates plummeted in 2007-08, due to government arrests of monks and natural disasters that kept tourists away.

In 2007, troops cracked down on barefooted monks in Yangon -- the so-called "Saffron Revolution." A year later, cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, claiming 138,000 lives.

The hotel industry is only now beginning to recover from the twin disasters.

"The rates in 2006 were higher than what they are today," Belmonte said, though merchants anticipate growth this year.

The century-old Strand, an iconic hotel built by the Sarkies brothers who also built the Raffles of Singapore, is now asking 190 dollars a night for a standard room. That rate jumps to 280 dollars during the October to February high season.

With a mere 30 rooms on offer, and scant competition -- the Governor's Residence is the town's only other deluxe hotel -- The Strand is looking forward to a good year.

"I'm happy for them because the hoteliers haven't really done well since they invested," Aung Myat Kyaw said.

The Strand, 50-per-cent government owned, underwent a major renovation in 1992.

Myanmar's first hotel construction boom occurred in the early 1990s, after the socialist system was abandoned and foreign investors were invited into to the country.

But the boom didn't last long: growth slowed after the military refused to cede power to a civilian government comprised of 1990s election winners, the NLD party.

The country's hotel stock numbers 22,000 rooms, nearly all geared towards businessmen.

"In Mandalay, there are only two to three international standard hotels, and half of their rooms are rented out to Chinese companies," Aung Myat Kyaw said.

Yet, Myanmar remains, largely, a destination for cultural tourism.

Most tourists spend one or two nights in Yangon, and take side trips to Bagan, the old capital; to Mandalay, the previous capital; and to Inle Lake.

Hoteliers, though sanguine about their recent revival, remain reluctant to raise rates for fear that doing so will choke the current expansion.

"Myanmar is already an expensive destination," Belmonte said. "You have to travel within the country, and transport isn't cheap -- the dollar has weakened the kyat. So, if you also increase hotel prices, the whole package becomes too expensive."


(c)2011 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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