To the big four and beyond in Myanmar

While the four ‘must-visit’ destinations in Myanmar remain sought after, attractions are emerging off the beaten path and promising to sustain tourist interest.

Mountains, caves and pagodas make Hpa-An, the capital of Kayin State, a scenic destination for trekking

Myanmar’s diversity of attractions is promising to sustain tourism interest and keep visitors returning to explore beyond the “classic four” of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.

Minister of hotels and tourism, Ohn Maung, said: “People are getting tired of seeing the same thing and we are seeing more (return visitors), so it is necessary to develop new destinations and attractions.”

Mountains, caves and pagodas make Hpa-An, the capital of Kayin State, a scenic destination for trekking

He added that this year the ministry is focusing on promoting the emerging destinations of Mergui Archipelago in the south – which is predicted to rise in popularity from October, when the first of six approved hotel projects opens – and Kayin State. The ministry will also push Kyaikto and Ngapali Beach.

May Myat Mon Win, Myanmar Tourism Marketing’s (MTM) chairperson, said the organisation is carrying out campaigns to highlight new attractions at international trade shows and through social media.

This year has also seen MTM invite international journalists, bloggers and influencers for fam trips to experience new destinations. She said: “We are trying to diversify the products available and experiences for visitors to Myanmar.”

Tour operators are also developing a series of alternative itineraries in the form of trekking tours in Shan State, mountain bike trips and eco-adventures and community-based initiatives in other areas such as Kayin and Kayah States, including mountain bike tours, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and nature-related trips.

Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, managing director of Diethelm Travel Myanmar, said: “We can’t rely on run-of-the-mill products. Part of Myanmar’s (appeal) are opportunities for local interaction and the best way to (highlight) that is by telling stories. That’s easy to do in Myanmar. We create products that our clients can participate in, such as biking through villages and trekking.”

Su Su Tin, Exo Travel Myanmar’s managing director, commented: “These destinations have existed for many years. However, they are now being promoted and have more facilities. Accessibility is better, there are more restaurants and hotels, and tour operators are promoting them.”

Edwin Briels, managing director of Khiri Travel Myanmar, said destinations opening up away from the classic four of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake has meant tour operators can expand their itineraries, creating more options.

He said: “We want to create new products that aren’t just temples, and see where we can go off the beaten track and what we can do there.”

However, when looking for new destinations, Khiri tries not to stray too far off well-trodden paths, curating travels that take in authentic experiences with locals that are accessible from one of the major four.

“We want to avoid people having to fly or drive for too many hours,” said Briels, acknowledging first-time visitors want to visit some of the classics. “Myanmar is huge so it’s best to (visit) part of the country. If it’s your first time, then you may want to do Bagan and Inle Lake, and then try to include one more off-the-beaten-track area.”

Khiri has a lot of repeat visitors, who return to explore more outlying areas, Briels added.

Bertie Lawson, managing director of Sampan Travel, said even when visiting the classic four, it is imperative tour operators seek out the many undiscovered or overlooked sites that exist nearby.

Said Lawson: “Tourism isn’t spread out here yet. People still want to go to Bagan and Mandalay. They think it’s going to be very quiet but, for example, when they visit Mandalay they go where everyone goes and join hundreds of people. This is bad for tourism, bad for tourists and bad for Mandalay. Tour operators need to be clever and take people to other places that are just as beautiful.”

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