Myanmar’s Rohingya genocide trial could harm the country’s popularity among big-spending tourists from the west, according to the sector.
The case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague has highlighted the plight of the Rohingya, more than 730,000 of whom fled to Bangladesh amid the brutal military crackdown in August 2017.
Myanmar offers excellent tourist attractions like the beautiful ruins of Bagan, the spectacular gigantic unfinished stupa at Mingun and the exotic former imperial capital of Mrauk U (pictured) in war-torn Rakhine State.
But due to rising security concerns, the government has named more attractions as off-limits for tourists.
A German tourist was killed and a female companion injured when a landmine exploded in Thibaw in Shan State on November 26, sparking a wave of restrictions.
The new restricted areas included destinations in Rakhine, Kachin and Chin states and Sagaing and Yangon regions, said the Hotels and Tourism Ministry.
Tourist gem Mrauk U and Ponnagyun and Minbya are now outlawed due to repeated clashes with the Arakan Army since January.
“The international community’s negative perception of Myanmar is currently the most challenging risk for tourism growth,” said May Myat Mon Win, Myanmar Tourism Marketing’s chief. “On average, hotels in Yangon are still half-empty in terms of occupancy.”
Tourism makes up approximately 7 per cent of the official economy and supports more than 1 million jobs, the World Travel and Tourism Council reported.
A large chunk of Myanmar’s income, however, centres around the drugs trade, clandestine jade exports, people-trafficking and prostitution, which is not reflected in the official economic figures.
Fewer Europeans are arriving and US visitor numbers are only increasing slightly. These groups tend to spend more than Asian visitors, who continue to arrive in greater numbers.
European visitor numbers fell year-on-year by 1.4 per cent from January to October, the authorities said. US visitors rose by 2 per cent compared to a 53 per cent increase in Asian arrivals, which is partly related to new visa rules.
The Tourism Ministry said more than 4 million visitors had arrived this year, up from about 3.6 million last year.
The World Bank has forecast GDP growth to reach 7 per cent by 2022. Ongoing conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states continue to limit growth to the areas of the country dominated by the ethnic Bamar.
“We now have to depend on Asian tourists, though we previously aimed for the western market,” said Sabei Aung of Nature Dream Travels and Tours in Yangon. “It’s a bit like building a luxury condo but living in it on an empty stomach.”
Spectacular Mrauk U is now off-limits to tourists. Picture credit: Asean Economist