Tourism officials in Myanmar are bemoaning what they consider the bad behavior of the skyrocketing number of Chinese visitors to the Southeast Asia nation after they began offering the Chinese visas on arrival in 2018.
Though the officials acknowledge that the growing number of Chinese tour groups has given a much-needed boost to the slumping economy, they have voiced concern that their actions are endangering the country’s cultural heritage sites and that their spending primarily benefits Chinese-run businesses.
Now that they no longer have to apply for a visitor’s visa in advance, Chinese visitors have been flocking to Myanmar on inexpensive package deals booked by operators that offer cheap flights and accommodations.
“Many of those who come from China are from low-income families, and so they don’t understand our dos and don’ts,” said Soe Moe, manager of Hotel Bahosi in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon.
Chinese visitors routinely disobey rules and touch and rub the jade carvings and walls in the Maha Mahapasana Cave and in Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon, Soe Moe said.
They do the same at the Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Place) Monastery, a finely carved traditional 19th-century teakwood monastery just outside Mandalay’s Royal Palace.
“Some of them rubbed and tried to shake the carvings,” Soe Moe said. “We need to be able to stop these kind of acts.”
The Chinese, many of whom are heavy smokers, also fail to heed no smoking policies in hotels and frequently leave rooms in disarray, said Soe Paing of the Myanmar Tourist Guide Association.
“There are 'no smoking' signs inside the rooms, but they still smoke,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They don’t follow the rules.”
Rooms are often left “really messy,” and guests in adjacent rooms complain about foul odors and noise coming from their neighbors’ quarters, he said.
“When they close the doors, they bang them — boom and bang,” he said.
Look East, Look West
The number of Chinese entering Myanmar increased 137 percent with 154,000 additional visitors arriving during the period January to May 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population.
The visa-on-arrival program for the Chinese, which took effect in October 2018, was implemented by Myanmar's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism as part of its “Look East” policy to attract visitors from Asia as tourist numbers from the West plummeted due to the conflicts in Rakhine state and other ethnic regions.
Myanmar dropped visa requirements for visitors from Japan and South Korea who enter by air or land, while tourists from China, Hong Kong, and Macau must pay U.S. $50 for a visa on arrival at airports in Yangon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw.
With visitors from Western countries shunning Myanmar because of the Rohingya refugee crisis beginning in August 2017, the country’s tourism ministry will also implement a “Look West” policy, with visitors from Germany, Italy, Australia, Russia, Switzerland, and Spain able to pay U.S. $50 for 30-day visas on arrival, the Myanmar Times reported in June.
Despite complaints by workers in the tourism industry, Myanmar government officials have stressed the positive economic impact of Chinese visitors on local economies.
Ohn Maung, Myanmar’s hotels and tourism minister, told reporters during a late May press conference that Chinese tourists generate income for Myanmar’s citizens by booking hotel rooms, hiring guides and drivers, and eating in restaurants, and that Myanmar citizens were therefore receiving an income.
Kyaw Win, treasurer of the Myanmar-Chinese Tourism Promotion Group noted that it is not just Chinese visitors who cause problems in Myanmar.
“It’s not just Chinese people. Other people can also be undisciplined,” he said. “However, now that more Chinese people are entering here, they become more noticeable.”
His organization regularly provides feedback to embassies and tourist groups from China, telling them the areas in which Chinese tourists could improve their behavior, he said.
In June, Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism formed groups comprising tourism industry officials in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan to monitor large Chinese tour groups and ensure that tour operators have the appropriate licenses.
Myanmar officials created the teams also over concerns that Chinese tour operators steer their groups toward Chinese-owned businesses in Myanmar, undercutting Myanmar businesses and individuals that operate in the sector.
“In tourism development, there’s a difference between quantity development and quality development,” said Thet Lwin Toe, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association.
“In quality development, valued tourists come,” he said. “They spend a lot of money, so our stakeholders — roadside sellers, sidecar drivers, and horse cart drivers who provide transportation — earn income.”
RFA was unable to reach officials at the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism for comment on the growing number of Chinese visitors.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo and Saw Sar Gill Do for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.