Myanmar opens up in two weeks, but the detail remains scant

Myanmar’s main tourist attractions are pagodas, temples and religious foundations.

Myanmar’s military rulers say that the country is back on a near-normal course with the issuing of 28-days online tourist visas as early as April 17. Government websites point out that there are literally thousands of places to visit, admittedly mostly temples and pagodas, with hotels and restaurants nationwide keen for your custom. Particularly recommended is a hot air balloon ride at sunrise in UNESCO’s world heritage site in Mandalay. And don’t forget to drink a can or two of Mandalay Spirulina which apparently has anti-ageing properties you’d scarcely credit.

Although the junta has taken a lot of flak for the February 2021 coup and the now-familiar catalogue of human rights abuses, the revival of Myanmar tourism has its international fans. Indian newspapers in particular are suggesting that tourists will be perfectly safe, whilst their rupees will help to restore the Myanmar economy. The Chinese government is anxious not to upset the administration of senior general Min Aung Hlaing, but can’t for the moment promote international tourism whilst simultaneously ordering its own citizens to holiday at home. The internet reveals many international tour-escort companies promoting Myanmar right now. Their customer numbers may be a different matter.

Tanks parade in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital city, but create a hostile environment for the return of tourism.

Any European thinking of venturing into Myanmar faces some very high hurdles. Fully vaccinated tourist candidates must pay US$50-US$56 online for the e-visa, although the site does warn that you might be refused and won’t be told the reason. But you may be informed you are on “the watchlist”. On arrival, you will be taken to a quarantine hotel for a compulsory sojourn of seven days and two extra RT-PCR virus tests. Once let out, you will quickly discover that some cities and regions are off-limits to foreigners and that electricity brownouts are commonplace even in downtown districts.

It is not exactly crystal clear which airlines will be flying to Yangon. Prior to the Covid pandemic, there were 30 foreign flights daily from Asian cities, but flagged travel suspension notices for April 2022 suggest that commercial flights will be very thin indeed on the ground. Of course, Myanmar Airways is offering repatriation flights from Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, whilst Thai Airways does operate an ad hoc service. Maybe a few stray tourists will be able to book seats on these semi-commercial flights. If so, they will likely be Asean nationals from Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, the governments of which have said they are “neutral” about the legitimacy of the coup. But the numbers will be non-consequential.

As Michael Isherwood, chair of the Burma Humanitarian Mission puts it, “the attempted revival of tourism is simply a ploy to benefit the junta and not the country as a whole”. He has little to worry about on that particular score. Yangon airport is likely to remain semi-deserted for as far ahead as the eye can see. The Myanmar international tourist game is going to be very short of players. Very short indeed.