Myanmar: Asia’s Next Tourism Superstar Awakens


Growing up in Myanmar in the 70s, May Myat Mon Win dreamt of a day “when our country could be like our neighbours” in South-east Asia. “We just didn’t know how long it would take,” she said.

Today, as the chairperson of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing Committee (MTMC), she sees that the dream is within sight but “the journey has just begun, we gave to work hard” – work in terms of building up tourism arrivals to the country which once housed South-east Asia’s busiest airport in the 60s and developing its tourism infrastructure to cater to growing demand to visit this once-closed destination.

“We were like the sleeping beauty of Asia, waiting for the prince to wake us up,” laughed May, who became Myanmar’s first female general manager of a five star hotel when she took on the reins at Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon in 2014. “Now we have a lot of catching up to do.”

May was heading the first Myanmar B2B roadshow in Singapore to mark the 30-day visa free exemption for Singaporeans as well as the launch of new flights to Singapore by state-owned Myanmar National Airways.

“This will help stimulate last minute travel,” she said. “Today, people like to make last minute plans and it’s about instant decisions, instant booking – you have to be there at the point of where the customer is.”

Mobile’s leading the change

Myanmar is a good example of a country that’s leapfrogged to mobile. Mobile penetration is at nearly 50% and “people’s first experience of the Internet is via mobile and probably Facebook”, she laughed. “In the last few years, we have seen a lot of changes – before, we couldn’t even get Internet, now we’ve got a fourth telco, we have e-banking and car-on-demand services like Oway Ride.

“Technology has changed our lives, the way we do business in hospitality has changed, our distribution channels have changed. A lot of new businesses have to learn how to take advantage of technology.”

In her 300-room hotel, 75% of the business comes from direct B2B while the rest comes from OTAs and direct website.

She said hoteliers in Myanmar have started discussing Airbnb and its implications on their business “but it’s not a big issue yet, the numbers are still insignificant.”

“More than enough rooms for every budget”

For now, the top priority on MMTC’s agenda is increasing visitors from Singapore to Myanmar with the new visa-free ruling and additional flights, up to 40 flights a week between the two places.

Singapore and Myanmar have always had strong diplomatic and business ties. There are about 200,000 Burmese people living in Singapore. Last year, about 45,000 travellers from Singapore visited Myanmar, an 18% increase from the year before. This year, a 35% increase is projected.

Last year, Myanmar welcomed just under five million visitors and the official target is to increase this to seven million by 2020.

There’ve been talk of not enough rooms to cater to increased demand over the last two to three years and May said this is no longer true. “From 2013 to now, the government has permitted investments and infrastructure development and there are new hotels opening in every destination.

“But what’s more important is the variety of hotels. In the past, we only had good four- or five-star hotels. Now we have good two- and three-star hotels, lots of bed and breakfast and quality 5-star hotels.

“We want to correct the myth – there is plenty of room, year-round, as well as improved air connectivity for every type of traveler.”

Sustainability is key, so is better lives for its people

May is clearly enjoying the new freedom to be found in Myanmar today. “After I graduated, there was no Internet, it was an oppressed environment and we dared not say what we think. But now we really want to work hard and achieve our dreams.  We are dedicated and passionate about making things happen.”

May, who’s worked in hospitality for 22 years, has been part of the growth story of Myanmar tourism. She started out in sales at the Summit Parkview and a key turning point was in 1996 when she came to Singapore for a training stint at the Singapore Standards and Productivity Board.

“That was such a great experience, we had no access to such training then. The young generation today are very lucky.”

May is not concerned that service standards may falter with the tourism boom. “In fact, service standards have improved. Myanmar people are very friendly and always give priority to the guests. It’s in their blood.”

The bigger concern is hotel planning, she said. “We need better demand and supply planning. It’s too up and down. Myanmar used to be over-supplied for 10 years, then between 2012 and 2015, it was under-supplied. Now if we don’t work on demand, we will go into oversupply again.

“We must communicate more with our source target markets and change perceptions and myths,” she said.

Asia provides 70% of all travellers, with Thais, Chinese and Japanese leading the way. Europe has always been an attractive, high-yield market but is too seasonal, busy for only four months of the year. “We need to even out the demand from Europe,” she said.

Another concern is whether Myanmar could lose its charm as tourism grows at a speed faster than its infrastructure and human resource capability can handle.

“Our vision is to have a sustainable destination. The advantage of being the last one is we can learn from others, what to do and what not to do. Tourism can contribute to the economic development of our country. There are a lot of rural areas that can be developed such as Loikaw and Inya Lake and people can have better lives through tourism.”

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Founded by two travel and technology professionals with years of experience in Asia, Representasia specialises in sales & marketing representation throughout Southeast Asia for travel/hospitality technology providers and travel-related startups, as well as providing marketing consultancy services for hotels and travel businesses in the region.

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