I was skeptical that Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels & Tourism could control the issue of runaway rates – until I got hold of a letter from the ministry to a Singapore-owned hotel in Yangon, saying it was going to restrict the re-entry of the hotel’s senior general manager within six months from the date of the letter (July 23) over complaints the hotel had “changed the contracts with different rates from time to time”, and whom it found to be “still selling the expensive room rates on the basic room type”. It asked the owning company to “replace someone who can manage the hotel” in place of the senior GM during the period and that the re-entry of the senior GM would be reviewed upon “progress of the situation”.
It is understandable that hotels are trying to cash in when, at long last, it’s raining arrivals. They’ve suffered losses through long, empty years and to expect temperance from them with regards to room rates, in the interest of the destination’s long-term reputation, is a bit much. Where the hotels went wrong was in chopping and changing contracts so much, that it became unreliable to work with Myanmar.
Given that demand is going to be outstripping supply for some time, hotels should know that they would be able to enjoy higher rates in a matter of time and, indeed, should be allowed to. Market forces should determine prices, not limits such as the rate cap of US$150 per room per night imposed by the ministry. The fact is, there are enough tourists and business travellers who are willing to pay high rates. And for all their moanings, tour operators are expanding their offices in Myanmar, as reported in TTG Asia in last issue, which means there is still a lot of business despite higher rates or difficulties in getting rooms.
However, rates should be increased gradually and honourably, as that’s good for business.
The greater issue facing Myanmar is deciding what kind of tourism it wants, not worrying whether its rates are higher than neighbouring ASEAN.With an English-speaking population, ethereal views such as the thousands of temples and pagodas rising in the plains of Bagan, unspoilt beaches, etc, Myanmar could be the next Thailand, the next Bhutan, or somewhere in between.
The greatest advantage emerging destinations has is a choice to decide its tourism course. Too often, blinded by the quick bucks tourism brings, they forget they have a choice. That’s when over-development or haphazard development happens, and the soul of a destination – the sum of its environment, culture, heritage, lifestyle – the very reason why it is prized, is lost. This is what will spoil a destination’s long-term reputation – not high rates.
Bhutan, for me, remains the model Asian country that understands from early on tourism’s double-edged sword. Most countries do understand tourism’s potential to destroy, but few have the discipline, or aren’t self-serving, to control mass tourism with measures such as a high visitor tax per day. Bhutan does not get high revenues from tourism as a result of keeping volume at bay, but it sure is richer in the long term for preserving its right to keep its environment, culture, heritage and lifestyle.
If you call this elite tourism, I’d say go on, be an elitist. If that ensures self-preservation, why not? Why shouldn’t countries with the goods be premium destinations for only those who can pay higher dollars? The mature tourist destinations in South-east Asia themselves are now trying to reverse their courses and attract more quality tourists.
I certainly hope Myanmar will shun mass tourism and tilt the scale towards quality tourism. Now is the time for its tourism members, whom I am certain love Myanmar, to help shape its destiny.
And in doing so, I hope they will remember that some things are not for sale.
This article was first published in TTG Asia, August 10, 2012, on page 4. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.