Monday, August 4, 2014

Thursday, July 31st – Some Final Thoughts on Myanmar



As today was a relatively boring travel day (Mandalay to Bangkok to Phuket with lots of transfers, bus rides and waiting in between), Ana and I tried to get our heads wrapped around this country they call Myanmar, or sometimes Burma.

We loved parts of it, such as the unforgettable day trip on Lake Inle, being all alone in the temples of Bagan, and especially the way the locals nearly everywhere instantly recognized us as foreigners and gave us huge, authentic, lovely smiles, welcoming us to their country.  But we hated other parts of it, such as being charged fees for absolutely everything, paying a lot for mediocre food, and having locals in the tourist business overcharging for things and trying to rip us off at every corner.  This is the first country we’ve visited on this trip where we were made to feel like a plump cow being milked after the rough handed farm boy noticed our udder was full.  Saying that, we did spent our entire time on the well beaten tourist track, so I expect if we had more time to stray further into the less travelled parts of the country we would have encountered fewer people conditioned to working tourists over.

I am very glad we went because I have some amazing memories of the country, and I am also glad we only went for seven days, because at the end of that time we were ready to leave.  Yes, it is a very unusual country, with its troubled history, recent political changes, and overbearing neighbours (India on one side, China on the other – how’s that for an Asian sandwich jobbie), but I can’t help but think that they are not on the right track when it comes to tourism.  If I were hired as a consultant to the Myanmar Department of Tourism, and they were looking to increase the quantity of tourists and quality of experience in the country, here is some advice I would give them:

These are the things you are doing right:


1. You are letting tourists into your country, this is a good starting point.  We want to visit!
2. Your country’s history is intriguing and culture unique.  Myanmar has a diverse range of natural areas, so many different ethnicities, incomparable archaeological treasures, animals and birds not found elsewhere and kind and hospitable people.  You have an excellent product!
3. Knowingly or unknowingly, you are keeping tourists to a well beaten path, which is Yangon, Mandalay, Lake Inle and Bagan.  If you want tourism but also want to retain your country’s charm and character, it’s better if the tourists stick to a small geographical area and aren’t stomping around all over the country.
4. Many people speak at least a bit of English, which is more than can be said for many of your neighbours.  As a tourist, it is quite a surprise when you stop to ask a local vendor for directions and they can speak English.  Capitalize on this.
5. Because of the military government, people expect to see police and army everywhere, but this is not the case.  In fact, the entire time we were there we didn’t see a single army vehicle and only a handful of policemen.  This was a pleasant surprise.
6. Your country looks and feels safe.  This means a lot to visitors.

These are the things you could improve on:

1. Though you have an excellent offering for tourists, all your neighbours do too, so you need to ensure that these initial tourists who are visiting your country leave with a good impression, and either come back or tell others to visit.  Yours is one of the few countries in the area where foreigners are charged a different level of pricing than locals.  While it’s true that foreign tourists can afford to pay these, it does not mean they like paying them, and this may have a detrimental long term impact.
2. Foreign travelers are willing to pay more if they receive a better product or service.  For example, the overnight bus we took from Yangon to Lake Inle was the one of the nicest busses we have ever traveled on.  The one we took from Inle to Bagan was one of the worst we have traveled on and would have happily paid twice the fair for a decent bus and fewer unnecessary stops.
3. When tourists walk into a shop, the staff should not race over and stand right beside them.  It creeps people out and they are more likely to leave the store than buy something.  Give us time to look around, if we are interesting in something you are selling, we will ask.
4. Get some Mandalay beer shirts printed – you will sell lots of them.  People love local beer shirts and I didn’t see a single one for sale in Myanmar!
5. Set up a proper Visa-on-Arrival system and publicize it.  Getting a visa for your country is a real pain in the ass.  Charge a standard rate for everybody.  If people traveling in Southeast Asia know that they can just show up and get a visa, many will come.
6. Though many Burmese people speak English, we found that quit often the folks working in the tourism industry spoke less English than regular people on the street.  Try to find people with good language skills to work in tourism, especially when their jobs is specifically to communicate with tourists, such as information desks at airports, bus stations, hotels and so on.
7. Information on your country is difficult to get.  The guidebooks we saw were hopelessly out of date.  Have information available at the airport for travelers, such as a tourist guide that explains how to get around, basic facts about the country, ideas for an itinerary, customs to be aware of and so on.  Why not give them a checklist of things they could accomplish while visiting (sunrise at a temple at Bagan, smoke a green cigar at Inle Lake, meditate with a monk, chew betel nut, ride a boat on the Irrawaddy, stick a gold leaf on a Buddha, explore a hidden beach).  People love lists.  Also, have an official government website that has simple, up to date information on visas, availability of ATMs and credit card payment facilities, admission prices to the major areas and some basic guidelines for visitors on what to expect.
8. What’s with the currency exchange and requirement for perfect US bills?  I’ve never traveled anywhere where the US money you exchange has to be in perfect condition and a recent mintage.  Why is it different in Myanmar?  Also, why do you offer worse exchange rates for lower denomination bills?  The US$50 and $20 bills should trade for the same rate as $100.
9. Tourists have money and generally understand that they will be charged slightly more.  But don’t completely rip them off!  Nothing sours the travel experience more when you get off a bus at four in the morning and everybody is trying to charge you five times what the regular price for a taxi should be.  Charge them the right price, and they will hire you again.  A short term “screw the tourist” system may work fine for a while, but it is not a good long term strategy.
10. Compared to surrounding countries, the entry fees you charge to attractions are steep.  Do it in such a way that tourists know what to expect and don’t feel ripped off.

We are also traveling as a family, so probably have different needs than a single, independent traveler would have, and therefore may have had a completely different experience than other travelers.  But that is the beauty of travel – each person comes away with their own unique experience!

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