January 21, 2020
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The truth behind the Chinese tourism boom

In 2011, Chinese tourists overtook Thais as the leading nationality visiting Burma with, ...

In 2011, Chinese tourists overtook Thais as the leading nationality visiting Burma with, officially, 65,838 visitors. But if you walk around the famous attractions in Rangoon such as Shwedagon Pagoda, you will hardly find any tour groups from China or even an individual Chinese traveler. So where are they?

A man takes a photograph of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon on Burma's New Year’s Day, April 17, 2012. (Photo: Mizzima / Ye Min) 
“I’m too busy to travel around Yangon,” said Mr. Zeng from Guangzhou, sitting in the lobby of his hotel. He said this is his first trip to Burma and he will stay here for around a week. Although he entered the country with a tourist visa, he does not intend to do any sightseeing. “Burma is open for business, and I came to see if there are any opportunities,” he said, before turning back to his Burmese interpreter to discuss the next day’s schedule. He said he asked a local agency to arrange interviews with other translators early the next morning. “I have many things to do. One interpreter is not enough,” he said.

Burma, known officially as Myanmar, has long been one of the most mysterious and undiscovered destinations in the world. Foreign tourists are now coming in to explore the country’s culture, nature and lifestyles.

But few Chinese tourists appear to have any interest in seeing the ancient ruins of Pagan or the Golden Rock Pagoda at Kyaiktiyo.

Their main interest appears to be to explore the economic potential of a neighboring country in transition.

Mya Than Zaw is the managing director of the Truly Myanmar travel agency. Most of his clients are from mainland China, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“Almost all of the groups from mainland China are investors,” he said. “They come to Burma on tourist visas to look for business opportunities. We take care of their transportation, accommodation and meals.”

According to data from Burma’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, in 2011 China was the largest source of visitors to Burma with 15.85 percent of the market, followed by Thailand at 15.77 percent.

But this figure is disputed. “The ranking does not tell the whole story, because most genuine tourists from China come across the border,” said an employee from a Burma-based Chinese media group.

“Those who enter Burma on scheduled flights are invariably here to investigate business markets,” she said. “So if it comes to the real number of tourists who visit Burma to travel and sightsee, China would fall far behind Thailand.”

However, of course, even these Chinese business-seekers have leisure time. Do they take advantage of days off to visit resorts?

Businesswoman Michelle from Zhejiang, who works in the automobile industry, has been to Burma three times. She said that the only attraction she has seen is Shwedagon Pagoda.

“I have only heard about the pagoda,” she shrugs. “The people here are very simple and friendly, but the traffic is a nightmare. I really don’t know where else to visit except for the temples.”

Buying gold in Chinatown. (PHOTO: Xiao Ting Shirley)
“Most Chinese have no idea about traveling in Burma,” said Mya Than Zaw, shaking his head. “If they do want to travel around, they will come to me first for advice. Some want fresh air and to meet friendly people.

“One guy said to me: ‘Hey, look! Burma is very rich. No one steals the gold from Shwedagon Pagoda.’ That’s typical Chinese merchant humor,” he said.

Thida Nally, the director of sales and marketing at Asia Global travel agency, said that Chinese tourists are quite changeable: “European tourists are likely to book half a year in advance and they will always reconfirm their schedules. Chinese tourists make last-minute bookings. They also change their arrangements all the time because of business meetings.”

“European tourists are more interested in the Buddhist culture, but Chinese are more likely to go shopping,” said a staffer from the Columbia travel agency.

“Most of my customers are regular clients,” said Mya Than Zaw, himself a Chinese-Burmese. “But they do not make purchases in our recommended shops. They like to go shopping by themselves. They are mostly interested in Burmese jade and gems. I often advise them not to buy here in Rangoon because the prices are much cheaper in Guangzhou. I treat them as friends.”

Mya Than Zaw said his company received 72 Chinese tour groups in 2011, but only 58 in 2012. “The boom last year was because of the dispute over the Myitsone project. Lots of Chinese companies sent representatives over here for negotiations.”

However, a new generation of young backpacking Chinese might change the stereotypical image. Zuo Lu, a traveler from Jiangsu, said, “Burma is one of the last virgin lands for travelers. I am taking advantage of its reforms and plan to explore the country.”

He said that he planned his route a couple of months ahead, and that he will spend the full 28 days—the duration of a single-entry tourist visa—traveling around the country.

But for many other Chinese, Burma has a long way to go.

“No way!” exclaimed Zhou Xingchun, a businessman on his fourth visit to Burma. “I will never travel around this country until it has better roads and communications, and acceptable hotels.”

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