With its sweeping view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, a glittering golden stupa and Myanmar’s top cultural attraction, the Esperado Lake View Hotel should be in an enviable spot. Yet, just two years after it was built, this four-star hotel sits half-empty for many months at a time, according to manager Nero Kyaw Wai. “We aren’t seeing the demand in Myanmar,” he said.
When the country opened to the outside world in 2011 after decades of military rule, the former British colony held promise as one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations, a last frontier for adventure travel. With its lush landscapes and ancient temples, government planners hoped tourism would become a big part of the development equation, just as it has been for neighboring Thailand.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. A construction glut has flooded Myanmar with unused hotel rooms, and poorly regulated building has damaged national treasures like the archaeological site of Bagan and scenic Inle Lake, which is becoming clogged with silt and garbage.
“It’s a massive challenge for the country to develop such a complex sector where they have no experience,” said Paul Rogers, a tourism consultant and adviser to the Myanmar government.
Change has come quickly since Myanmar’s emergence from isolation. A democratically elected coalition led by Aung San Suu Kyi —the former political prisoner and Nobel laureate — formed a new government last year, pledging to end ethnic conflict and open the economy.
In recent years, foreign investment has poured in, bringing the first Western fast food restaurants, a Coca-Cola Co. bottling plant and cellphone service. In 2016, the country clocked one of Asia’s fastest economic growth rates, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Still, the country remains one of the world’s poorest, the military still holds powerful sway, and ethnic violence persists. The United Nations in February said members of the army and the police had likely killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, and forced nearly 90,000 from their homes during a crackdown last year against the minority group. A government adviser who had called for religious harmony was shot and killed outside Myanmar’s international airport in January.
“There is no safe travel in the northern part of the country and the country gets a lot of bad press,” said Thet Lwin Toh, chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association.