Myanmar is one of the most fascinating destinations in the Far East. Known to most travelers as the Golden land, Myanmar possesses a rich and vibrant cultural tradition. From ancient cities, to dazzling Buddhist temples, and unspoilt beaches and countryside, Myanmar is a new and emerging tourist destination in South East Asia. Tourism in Myanmar is a developing industry. With more than two million travelers flocking to Myanmar in 2013 there lies tremendous tourism potential that the country can offer to international visitors.
Given the popularity of tourists visiting Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Myanmar is slowly becoming a favoured tourist destination of Indians. Though not a very popular destination yet, the number of tourists from India has almost doubled in the last three years. Though the largest number of tourists to Myanmar comes from China, Thailand and US, the number of Indians is growing too.
India and Myanmar share a long geographical land border and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. The geographical proximity has also helped develop and sustain cordial relations between their people.
For India, Myanmar is a gateway to Southeast Asia. And for Myanmar, India is a window to South Asia. But the two countries have not been able to realise the full potential of their relationship due to the differences in their political system.
The bilateral relations between India and Myanmar have gradually shifted over the past two decades. Myanmar is crucial to India’s “Look East” policy. India and Myanmar’s relationship officially gained momentum after the Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1951. Over the years our governments have tried to reach out to Myanmar realizing its strategic importance, especially in the context of India’s regional ties. Economic relations between both countries were thus initiated, and a trade agreement signed in 1994 boosted the bilateral ties.
Myanmar is strategically important to India as it is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a 1,000-mile-long border with India. It is also the only country that can act as a link between India and ASEAN. Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. In 2001, Myanmar and India inaugurated the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, aimed at providing a major strategic and commercial transport route connecting North-East India and South Asia as a whole, to Southeast Asia.
Four northeastern Indian states – Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – share border with Myanmar. This provides an opportunity for India to connect itself to Southeast Asian countries through Myanmar via land route. To achieve this, work is already underway on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which is expected to be ready by 2016. It is a component of the Asian Highway that would pass through the North-East, connecting India with its eastern neighbours. The highway will run from Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar and represents a significant step in establishing connectivity between India and Southeast Asian countries.
The geographical closeness also provides India with an opportunity to develop northeastern states by increasing trade with Myanmar as well as by taking up joint infrastructure development. A healthy bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar could open up the Northeast for tourism potential from much-better-integrated Southeast Asian countries.
The Kaladan Multi-Modal transit transport project will connect Kolkata Port with Sittwe Port in Myanmar by sea. Once completed, the projects will help India link Kolkata with Mizoram and other northeastern states through inland waterway along the Kaladan river.
Facilitating border transit would make the Northeast a gateway to Myanmar – a potential boon for trade as well as tourism. During Manmohan Sigh’s visit to Myanmar in 2012, a bus service between Imphal, the capital of Manipur and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city was proposed which in turn would improve India’s connectivity and relationship with Myanmar.
Also, it would be beneficial to find synergies with other countries that have a strong presence in Myanmar, including Japan and Thailand. Japan, in particular, has increased its presence in Myanmar recently, and Japan’s approach is similar to India’s in terms of the conditions for assistance it imposes. With India-Japan ties growing and the latter planning to invest in India’s northeast, Tokyo could provide connectivity assistance to India between its northeast and Myanmar. Synergies can also be found with countries like Singapore that have a growing presence in Myanmar.
Highlighting the potential for sub-regional cooperation between India’s North-East, Bangladesh and Myanmar during a four-day tourism road show “Maitri Tourism 2014”, Tripura Tourism Minister Ratan Bhaumick has suggested the creation of a tourist circuit that would encompass the three countries to help in popularising historical places and attract tourism.
Through cross-border access the North-Eastern states can become a bridge between India and Myanmar. Looking at the economic and tourism prospects of Northeast India within the Look East Policy framework, tourism can create greater integration between Northeast India and Southeast Asia, and enable development in the north eastern parts. Within the Northeast, tourism is well placed to generate jobs and create economic opportunities. Given the increasing demand for experience and adventure tourism, there lies potential for development in this area. As tourism is booming in the Asia Pacific region, it provides a significant appeal for Northeast India to integrate into the tourism landscape of the region and thereby reap the benefits. It is required to assess the type of expectations that tourists from Southeast Asia may have when coming to the Northeast. Focusing on North-east India with a view to improve connectivity is critical. Transportation infrastructure for example can cater to tourists from ASEAN to places related to Buddhism and Buddhist art and to unique lifestyle attractions such as tea gardens and rhino safari tours. In order to generate interest of tourists it would be required to provide information to tourists who want to come as well as highlighting the potential of the sector to those who may be keen to invest. Studies have shown that ‘Buddhist circuits’ is an area of potential interest for tourists from Southeast Asia but would require an integrated and collaborative effort with other neighbouring states and countries of the region. In order to make it easier for tourists to visit local places inner permits need to be removed.
With better connectivity and implementation of various development projects the North-East region is on the track to become a hub for South Asia. Tourism is sure to open up new avenues of development and prosperity. Myanmar will become the point of convergence as well as the linking route between India and the other South-East Asian countries.