BANGKOK — Foreign airline companies big and small are falling over one another in a battle for landing rights in Myanmar to tap into Southeast Asia’s new and rapidly rising tourist destination.
Myanmar may still be a long way behind its neighbor Thailand in visitor numbers, but since President U Thein Sein began opening up the country two years ago, tourism has become one of its biggest businesses.
More than 20 foreign airlines now fly direct to several cities in Myanmar, ranging from the big German holiday package charter operator Condor to Thailand’s tiny Nok Air.
Frankfurt-based Condor, the biggest holiday charter flights company in Germany, is already operating a weekly service, while Nok Air begins a service in September.
Yangon International Airport clocked almost 500,000 arrivals in 2012 out of a total number of 600,000 people coming into the country by air, according to government figures.
Last year, the number of visitors to Myanmar topped the 1 million mark for the first time, but the Ministry of Transport and the Department of Civil Aviation are forecasting annual increases rising to 6 million visitors in 2017.
The planned new Hanthawaddy airport, to be built about 80 km from Yangon in Bago Region, is being designed to handle 12 million passengers annually. It’s provisionally scheduled to open in early 2018.
Nok Air is following the example of other budget airlines by offering flights on less crowded routes. It will fly between Mae Sot in northern Thailand and Mawlamyine in Mon State.
Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s fourth-largest conurbation after Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw.
From October, Nok Air will also fly to Yangon from Mae Sot. This seems set to intensify a battle between regional budget airlines for a slice of the Myanmar tourism cake.
Nok Air joins THAI Smile, the budget line of Thai Airways International, which now flies five times a week between Bangkok and Mandalay.
THAI Smile admitted it started its Myanmar service partly in answer to growing competition from Malaysia-based budget airline Air Asia, which also operates a subsidiary in Thailand called Thai Air Asia.
Tiny Bangkok Airways operates between the Thai capital and Yangon and Mandalay, often providing a feeder service for European airlines flying to Bangkok.
Major European airline companies are still hesitant about starting up services directly to Myanmar. For example, while the Middle East’s Qatar Air flies out of London to Yangon via its Doha hub base, British Airways flies to Bangkok, where passengers have to transfer to Bangkok Airways for a Yangon connection. Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi does the same out of London.
As with Bangkok, there is competition out of Singapore to fly to Myanmar. Both Singapore Airlines and its budget carrier subsidiary Silk Air connect with Yangon, vying with budget line Jetstar, which is owned by Australia’s major airline Qantas.
China Eastern Airlines and All Nippon Airways, or ANA, fly direct between Tokyo and Yangon.
Japan Airlines and Mitsubishi Logistics Corporation have launched a joint venture cargo business to and from Myanmar.
Other regional airlines now servicing Myanmar include Malaysia Airlines, Laos Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, while another major carrier using its budget subsidiary for Myanmar routes is Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, whose Dragon Air is expected to attract mostly Chinese passengers.
The strong competition on Thailand-Myanmar routes certainly seems justified by recent visitor arrival numbers.
In the first four months of this year, Thais topped the list of 253,000 tourists, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. That overall figure was over 40 percent higher than for the same period one year ago.
Asians totaled 60 percent of the four-month total, led by Thais with 37,000 visitors and followed by Japanese, South Koreans and Chinese. Among Europeans, French visitors were on top with 15,000, followed by British and Germans.
But despite the growing popularity of Myanmar with airlines, tourists and business seekers, actually getting into the country is still cumbersome.
The visa-on-arrival service is unreliable even for business travelers, while tourists “often have to waste up to a week waiting for an embassy to clear paperwork,” said the travel trade magazine TTR Weekly.
“Even the visa-on-arrival that is in place for business visitors requires a letter of invitation from a government department or commercial enterprise. It is essentially a pre-processed visa that is activated at the airport by immigration officials,” said TTR Weekly.
The confusion over who qualifies for a visa-on-arrival has even led the US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to issue an advisory to would-be visitors, urging them “not to consider the visas-on-arrival program a viable alternative to a visa.”
Another issue, according to TTR Weekly, is when Myanmar will relax its visa requirements for citizens of fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) member states.
“Although tourism is opening up, there has been no clear indication when Myanmar will comply with the Asean requirement that all 10 member states should allow visa free entry for up to 14 days for Asean region citizens,” the magazine said.
The Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board in June told a regional tourism conference in Bangkok that a review of the present rules would be made “soon.”
This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.