Myanmar needs to do more on visa-free travel

CHIANG RAI, 2 October 2018: Myanmar should be congratulated for easing entry formalities for Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists that took effect 1 October.

Koreans and Japanese travellers now enjoy visa-free travel to Myanmar through international airport and recognised land checkpoints. They can stay up to 30 days.

Chinese tourists are also eligible for a visa-on-arrival issued at three international airports — Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw.

Authorities are hoping it will reverse a negative trend in tourist arrivals. The three Asian nations are giants in delivering regional travel. If there are sufficient airline services, Myanmar could pull off a dramatic comeback as far as tourism is concerned.

But it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the need to boost travel to a country that is currently out of favour with European visitors over the on-going Rohingya crisis.

Looking around for source markets in Asia that could compensate for the drop in visitors from Europe, Myanmar should have started much closer to home.

Malaysia was the obvious choice. It’s the single remaining ASEAN nation that does not enjoy visa-free travel with Myanmar.  The other nine member nations, including tiny Brunei, all enjoy visa-free travel for up to 15 days, while Malaysians are forced to apply for an eVisa, or visit the nearest embassy to shell out around USD 50 for a tourist visa.

Malaysia is Thailand’s second largest tourism market after China. It was first for decades until China opened the gate for outbound travel.  Annual visits from just Malaysia to Thailand (3.4m in 2017) in fact matched Myanmar’s total tourist arrivals in 2017 (3.4m). That’s a compelling enough reason to give Malaysians visa-free travel.

The pet argument when discussions touch on why Malaysians are not eligible for visa-free travel to Myanmar  focuses on the need for reciprocity, or apparent obstacles that make it difficult to a negotiate a bilateral agreement. One of the obvious barriers is Malaysia’s fear that it could face a flood of workers from Myanmar seeking employment if it opened the visa-free gate.

As long as Myanmar demands a bilateral, two-way agreement on visa-free travel with Malaysia, it is losing valuable tourist traffic. It should follow the same principle that applied to Japan and Korea and offer Malaysians visa-free travel. It doesn’t need to be a two-way street. Both Japan and Korea are not offering visa-free travel to Myanmar’s citizens.

Malaysians are also big spenders and travel frequently to neighbouring ASEAN countries. There are plenty of direct flights between Myanmar and Malaysia and strong historical investment ties that generate business travel.

Thailand has over the years played the visa-free travel card to its advantage without asking for reciprocity. It paid off in Europe where most nationalities enjoyed a visa-free privilege for stays of 30 days without a single mention of allowing the same freedom to Thai citizens when they visited Europe.

Myanmar has correctly concluded that Asia is where it can make up the tourist numbers to ensure tourism grows after two years of decline and the visa-on-arrival facility for Chinese travellers is a good start after a hasty review of at least one rule that could have scuttled the offer.

Pragmatism ultimately triumphed over misguided rules when it was pointed out that requiring Chinese visitors to show they had USD1,000 in cash was a non-starter. The government removed the condition ahead of the 1 October launch.

Now travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau pay USD50 for the visa-on-arrival application and simply demonstrate they have a return air ticket to obtain a 30-day stay.

The new facility was introduced on the first day of China’s National Day holiday week that runs from 1 to 7 October.

It won’t impact on Golden Week tourist arrivals this time round, but the scheme is in place for a year giving the travel industry enough time to see if the easy visa scheme does the job.