State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held a videoconference from the Presidential Palace in Nay Pyi Taw at 10 am yesterday to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the hotels and tourism sector and the practical realities at the ground level with stakeholders.
Those who participated in the discussions were:
U Ohn Maung, Union Minister for Hotels and Tourism; Daw May Myat Mon Win, Vice-President of the Myanmar Tourism Federation; U Min Kyaw Oo, Secretary-General of the Myanmar Hotel Entrepreneurs Association.
Firstly of all the State Counsellor made some introductory remarks. She said since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the global tourism sector has been hit quite hard; in the presentations submitted by the three participants, she has found the term “new normal” being used; as for her she has not accepted this term yet; this was because she thought that it was still too early to decide whether we should follow the “new normal” way. If we follow the “new normal” way, it sounds as though it was not possible to control COVID.
If we looked back into history, medicines for curing diseases that were thought to be incurable had been found. If continued efforts were put in to find cures, medicines for curing these diseases could be found. Prevention of the disease was more important than curing of the disease. It was more effective. After having been injected with the vaccine for the prevention of the disease, one could live with peace of mind. To have the medical treatment for the disease provides a certain amount of comfort; of course, there would always be costs involved; although a preventive medicine has some costs involved, it is a little bit easier; there were many things to be considered regarding prevention and curative protocols.
In meeting, she wanted to discuss about how much the world’s economy has been affected by COVID-19; what were the results and impacts; secondly what was the impact on Myanmar’s tourism industry; we need to consider this for the short-term as well as the long-term; in the short-term, we need to consider to what extent we could help the people who are involved in the tourism sector so that they were not hurt too much; how much could the Union Government do and how much could the entrepreneurs from the private sector cooperate; in the long-term if the COVID period is going to last for a long time, we would need to follow the health guidelines and regulations during this period; if the COVID period lasts a long time, the number of travellers would decrease and it would be necessary to take this into account; if the COVID disease disappears quickly, it would be good for everyone; if this disease disappears, we would have to compete with the rest of the world; all the countries of the world would try their best to recover the losses they had suffered during the COVID period and Myanmar would have to compete also. It would be necessary to make sure that the hotels and tourism sector is able to make the adequate arrangements so that the tourists could come; she said she wanted to request the Union Minister for Hotels and Tourism to explain about the severe impact suffered by Myanmar and the plans and preventive measures taken so far.
Union Minister for Hotels and Tourism U Ohn Maung explained impacts of COVID-19 on the industry and recovery plans.
He said the number of inbound visitors in January this year was over 400,000, but it declined to about 6,000 in April, including those through land borders. After the trans-border visitors have been banned and the 14-day quarantine period imposed, the foreign visitors did not enter the country.
The MoHT has adopted the Myanmar Tourism Relief Plan that reflects CERP and its first phase has been implemented at the end of June. The relief plan included a one-year exemption of licence fee, 6-month postponement of taxes, 1 per cent interest loan and surveying the COVID-19 impacts.
The ministry will conduct tourism-related payment training for the persons with no job and no income due to the outbreak of COVID-19 after travel restrictions from one area to other regions have been lifted; the national tourism guidelines have been adopted for ensuring safety tourism services amid the pandemic based on the directives of the Ministry of Health and Sports, the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture before the businesses are allowed for reopening.
The Union Minister added the ministry has resumed the industry with domestic travellers while international airports have not come into operation, and people failed to follow the directives and it was a challenging situation for the country; the industry has seen only less than 10 per cent of previous figures; while the government has a limited capacity to provide full support to this industry, the most appropriate way is to work of resumption of this industry in line with the rules and directives.
Vice-President of the Myanmar Tourism Federation Daw May Myat Mon Win discussed people suffered anxiety during COVID-19 outbreak, and that it is expected they will travel to free from their distress.
She suggested the need for new tourist destinations as Myanmar has abundant natural attractions to the visitors; the tourism industry is a major driving force for the national economy helping people from all strata of society.
She also talked about the requirement of a clean environment with no debris in promoting the tourism sector, while tourists have preferred unspoiled areas with fresh air and natural beauties.
She remarked the possible developments in digitalization and automation at hotels, tracking of data to the customers and digital payments, and utilizing experiences of returnees who working hotel and tourism industry in foreign countries.
Secretary-General of the Myanmar Hotel Entrepreneurs Association U Min Kyaw Oo said that there are 2,091 hotels and guesthouses registered at the ministry across the country and some guesthouses licenced by local authorities.
The hotels and tourism industry is related to the business in transportation such as taxis, horse-carts, trishaws and boats, with the roadside vendors, souvenir shops, tour guides and healthcare works.
Hotel reservations began to decline at the end of January, some cancellations in February, decreasing inbound visitors in mid-March, increasing cancellation at the booking websites and zero reservation of a room in April.
He also talked about other difficulties in service charges, maintenance charges and electricity bill during the pandemic, and requested additional loans for the industry.
He continued discussions about reopening of hotels in line with the healthcare guidelines and conducting online training courses of online reservation, supervisory courses and hotel guest list management system.
He also presented the needs of environmental conservations in tourist attractions, for example in Inlay floating market, endangered species and ecosystem.
The State Counsellor said to consider the problem in a practical manner, it would not be easy to run the tourism sector in a safe manner from the health point of view; the tourism industry was not like the construction industry; the reason why the construction industry was permitted to restart early was that it was in the interest of the State; in the construction industry, it was possible to keep the workers apart from each other; however in the tourism industry, it was very difficult to practise social distancing.
She said the other day she saw a photograph of domestic tourists visiting the U Bein bridge; when she looked at the photo she saw that the people were grouped together; for family groups, it was not a problem; however looking at the photo, it could not be just one family; they were all staying together with other tourists; in the tourism industry, it was important to stay physically apart from each other.
Because of the nature of the tourism industry, as many tourists wish to visit the holy and sacred pagodas, how do we keep the visitors six feet apart from each other; we need to work this out in a practical manner; we would need to limit the number of tourists allowed to enter the pagoda at one time.
During the COVID period, many of the hotels have been affected; hotel owners have given a lot of support regarding COVID matters. When we ask foreigners to go into hotel quarantine, they preferred to stay in hotel quarantine rather than hospital quarantine. In making arrangements for them it would have been impossible without the cooperation of hotel owners. She said she was very grateful and appreciative for the cooperation of hotel owners; she wished to say that in facing the COVID challenges, hotel owners were in the frontlines.
For the hotels industry to succeed we need a lot of visitors; if the number of visitors was not big, hotel owners would have to struggle harder; we would all have to decide in a collaborative manner how to approach the problem of the hotels industry. In some countries they keep the tourists in expensive hotels; these tourists are rich. Their hotel industry was based on this. In other countries, they have inexpensive hotels; as for Myanmar we wish to follow the middle path; we do not wish our country to become a tourist destination where people can come cheaply. Some western tourists go to eastern countries because of the cheap prices. Some tourists travel to these places because of their interest in the culture and environment. Some travellers who are on the lookout for cheap prices do not care much about the environment or the surroundings. That was why there have been incidents where the natural environment was damaged.
After this, the State Counsellor made her concluding remarks. She said she would look at the rules and regulations for granting loans to the hotels industry. She said the Union Government would provide effective support to the hotels and tourism sector as much as possible. To help the people during their difficult times was investing in the future of the country. We need to help when help is needed. Only then would our country develop without losing its momentum.
She continued to say that she wanted to help all the small businesses that were connected with the hotels and tourism sector. She said she wanted the hotel owners to use their websites to market their hotels by posting the unique dishes offered at their hotels, training courses and cooking lessons. They could also post how to visit nice places for relaxation.
Now is the best time to give training to staff members who need to be restructured so that they would be able to fit in their new work places; it would be beneficial for the country if arrangements could be made to build small buildings for one or two nights stay in the beautiful natural environment to study and enjoy the natural environment; she wanted the tourism industry to encourage the beautiful natural environment of Myanmar.
The natural environment is changing; we need to change what needs to be changed; when we change it is very important to change in the interest of the majority. She added that she wanted all the participants to consider the fact that during the COVID period, this was the opportune moment to review and reassess the hotels and tourism sector to make it better and make it possible to operate at a higher level.
Challenges are not difficulties but opportunities. During this period when we have many challenges, the tourism sector was also one of the challenges; the tourism sector is “heart to heart” connection; from this, we need to go one step further and encourage visitors who come to Myanmar not only to have “heart to heart” connection but also “mind to mind” connection; we need to make them understand our history, our situation, and our challenges; our country is facing many challenges; basically the reason why there have been misunderstandings is that we have many problems, lack of knowledge of the past and also inadequate knowledge of the present.
She added this is the reason why she wanted to urge all the participants to work to establish a “mind to mind” connection starting from “heart to heart” connection. In whatever you do, bear in mind to work for the happiness and safety of the people. She wanted the hotels and tourism sector to work towards the happiness and safety of the people, the country and the Union and to keep this in mind always; the Union Government will work to the best of its ability; she also wanted the entrepreneurs, and all the responsible officials in the related sectors to collaborate and cooperate. —MNA (Translated by Aung Khin)