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5 Jun, 2012

New Branding Slogan Sealed: “All That Glitters is Not Gold, But Myanmar Is”

Imtiaz Muqbil at the World Economic Forum East Asia Summit

Bangkok, (1 June 2012) – With the tourism gold rush in full swing, Burmese Vice Minister for Hotels & Tourism U Htay Aung says the industry will “learn from the mistakes” of other countries in ASEAN. However, he is realistic enough to recognise that that may be easier said than done.

In 2011, Myanmar recorded visitor arrivals of 816,369, up from 791,508 in 2010. Mr. Htay Aung, who was in the official Burmese delegation to the World Economic Forum East Asia Summit  last week, says that in Jan-May, arrivals have already shot up 35% over the same period of 2011, and may well cross the one million mark this year.

From June 1, the visa regime was relaxed to give business visitors a visa on arrival upon payment of US$40, provided they have the documentation to prove their purpose of visit.

Mr. Htay Aung says all ASEAN citizens could start getting visa-free access by 2014 when Burma will assume the chairmanship of ASEAN. “We will have to most likely do that anyway by 2015 when the ASEAN Economic Community will take effect,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the WEF summit.

At the final closing WEF session on Burma, brochures and CDs were placed on all the seats highlighting the policies, plans and investment prospects of the tourism sector.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the star attraction at the WEF, indicated during one of her several public statements at the WEF East Asia Summit that tourism was one of the economic sectors that she would like to see deliver the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of quick-job creation for the majority of Burmese people.  She said she would like to see more stress on vocational training facilities to help meet the anticipated manpower demand.

A new branding slogan has emerged: “All That Glitters is Not Gold, But Myanmar Is.” This line was crafted by the Vice Minister who says it originated over a dinner conversation with UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary General Dr Taleb Rifai in Nay Pyi Taw on 6 May 2012.

Writing in the introduction to a booklet, “The Role of Myanmar Tourism in ASEAN Integration” distributed at the WEF, Mr. Htay Aung says that Dr Rifai felt that “gold” would be an appropriate reference on which to base a rebranding of Myanmar, given the country’s “tremendous resources for tourism development.”

Mr. Htay Aung says he responded by quoting from Shakespeare, whom he had studied during his high school days in 1968: “All that glitters is not gold,” with the caveat, “but Myanmar is.”

Writes the vice-minister, “Dr Rifai shared my sentiments and agreed to focus on those famous lines and to use them rightly for our future tourism promotional campaign.”

The primary problem will now be to manage the gold rush. In addition to leisure and business travellers, the tourism consultants and advisors have begun to pour in.

Thanks to funding from a German aid group, a European consultant is giving advice on development of responsible tourism policies. Norway is funding a tourism master plan to be finalised by the end of this year, with technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank. PATA is planning to put together a task force.

Mr. Htay Aung says that everything will be done to ensure tourism is developed by the book. This means ensuring environmental sustainability, cultural preservation, poverty alleviation, better income distribution and more diversification of tourist numbers nationwide.

Says Mr. Htay Aung, “We are encouraging local people to participate more in the decision-making process and tourism entrepreneurs to get involved with the local people and their businesses.

“We are also making earnest efforts to develop tourism and hospitality skills for local people, provide small business support schemes, and build basic infrastructure for tourist services in poor areas.”

He says he has already been approached by Air Asia about boosting flights to Yangon. Most of the visitors will come from the ASEAN and Asian countries.

Dozens of applications for licenses to set up hotels and tour operating agencies are awaiting approval.

However, problems are already emerging. Burmese hotels have torn up the contracts with tour operators and jacked up rates to astronomical levels. Mr. Htay Aung admits he couldn’t do much about it except to try and “educate” the hoteliers that this is not in the interests of promoting a positive “image” of Burma.

If they do not respond to rate-control measures, he says, some kind of “action” will be taken. However, he declines to elaborate, noting that he has to be careful not to lose his job.

Given the media blitz that Aung San Suu Kyi attracts wherever she goes, Myanmar’s strategic location and transportation access to neighbouring Thailand, driving numbers will not be a problem. In 2011, overland border tourism generated 425,193 visitors, more than the 364,743 arrivals recorded at Yangon airport.

The key challenge will be converting theory into practice.