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Travel & Holiday

Myanmar shining

More Singaporeans are choosing the country as a holiday destination
The Straits Times - February 14, 2012
By: Huang Huifen
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Myanmar shining The Shwedagon Pagoda is a key attraction in Yangon. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Tutor Seet Kaur, 47, has been going to Myanmar for the past three years to visit a relative working there.

On a two-week trip in November, she noticed there were more Singaporeans in Yangon, the commercial capital and gateway to the rest of the country, than she had seen on previous trips. 'I saw more Singaporeans in the airport and in Bogyoke Aung San Market where you can buy handicraft and clothes,' says Ms Kaur, who travelled with her husband and their daughter, Pooja, 10.

The number of Singaporeans travelling to Myanmar has certainly increased in the last few years, thanks to the country's emergence from political isolation, led by democratic reforms including the release of political prisoners by President Thein Sein.

According to figures released by the Myanmar Marketing Committee, which is the marketing arm of the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board, the number of Singaporean visitors has risen steadily over the past four years, from 8,599 in 2008 to 15,386 last year. Its spokesman says the trend is expected to continue this year.

Travel agencies such as Universal Travel are seeing a spike in interest for travel to Myanmar.

Mr Khoo Boo Liat, managing director of Universal, says his agency received 30 to 40 per cent more inquiries for Myanmar last December compared to the same period in 2010. He expects to send 500 to 700 Singaporeans to Myanmar this year, compared to the usual 200 customers each year.

Universal offers a range of four- to eight-day guided tours, priced from $748 to $1,598 a person. Key attractions include the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the floating villages of Inle Lake and the 4,000 pagodas and stupas scattered across the ancient city of Bagan.

Ms Yvonne Du, marketing manager for Zuji Singapore, says the number of bookings for Myanmar on the website has increased threefold from 2010 to last year. The purchases are mainly for flights.

To meet the growing demand, national carrier Myanmar Airways International last month increased its flight frequency between Singapore and Yangon from once to twice daily. There are two other airlines servicing the route: SilkAir, which flies there twice daily, and Jetstar, which flies thrice weekly. SilkAir and Jetstar say their Singapore-Yangon route is doing well.

In spite of the increase in tourists, Myanmar's tourism infrastructure is still in its infancy.

For the last financial year, there were 424,000 visitors to Myanmar but only 24,692 rooms provided by 570 hotels and 160 guesthouses. Accommodation is mostly in the three- and four-star range.

Currently, the hotel chains there are Asian-based firms such as Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, which runs Traders Hotel, Singapore's Sedona Hotels International, which is Keppel Land's hotel management arm, and Burmese GHM Luxury Hotels.

Sedona Hotels International, which has two properties in Myanmar, has seen about a 30 per cent increase in visitors from Singapore at its 366-room Sedona Hotel Yangon since last year.

International chains such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which runs chains such as Westin, Sheraton and Le Meridien, and Marriott International have said during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos that they are interested to run hotels in Myanmar. French hotel brand Sofitel also tells Life! that it is looking at establishing its brand there.

However, travel agents such as Chan Brothers Travel and CTC Travel say Myanmar remains a niche market for the well-heeled and adventurous.

Ms Alicia Seah, CTC's senior vice- president of marketing and public relations, says the rudimentary tourism infrastructure, such as limited hotels and coaches, have led to soaring prices for land tour arrangements. 'Compared to Thailand, which costs about $340 for a three-day trip, a similar trip to Myanmar costs $500 to $600,' she says.

Travellers also have to fork out $35 for a tourist visa that allows them to stay for four weeks from the date of arrival.

Still, CTC is ready to cash in on the growing interest by launching a three-day tour to Yangon that includes shopping and spa sessions at the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore Fair on Feb 24 to 26. Aimed mainly at women travellers, it is priced from $607 a person and includes flights, accommodation, tours, spa and selected meals.

Travellers such as Ms Kaur are hesitant about Myanmar's tourism boom. During her last trip, she noticed that the cost of food, hotel, merchandise and spa services had risen by 10 to 15 per cent. She says a meal in local eateries now costs about $3, while an hour-long spa session costs US$9 (S$11.30). Clothes and shoes cost about $10.

'The opening up of Myanmar is good, but it can also take away the mysticism of the country. It will soon become like any modern city,' she says.



Flights of fancy

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