The busiest year was 2015 with 4.68 million, in contrast to just 21,000 overseas arrivals in 1990, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
“I think the figure increased as we held many promotional events, and the government has allowed tourists to travel previously restricted areas,” said Myint Htwe, deputy director general at the ministry.
There were 120,000 in 1995, 660,000 in 2005 and 790,000 in 2010 while the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 coincided with an even greater surge in arrivals.
Official Burmese statistics are notoriously unreliable and the quality of the country’s banking statistics was called into question by the World Bank in December.
In 2015, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that the travel and tourism sector would grow by 8.4 per cent by 2025 to become the top earner for the quasi-democratic nation. A 2013 McKinsey Global Institute study estimated that tourism could contribute US$14.1 billion to the economy by 2030 and create around 2.3 million jobs.
The rise from 21,000 tourists in 1995 to 3.44 million in 2017 saw an increase of 16,190 per cent, which was only beaten by Cambodia, where arrivals rose from 17,000 to 5.01 million over the same period in a 29,470-per-cent increase.
The ongoing Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State has led to questions about whether a Burmese visit is morally justifiable.
“We expected 3.5 million in 2017 but we only received 3.44 million due to natural disaster and H1N1,” said Myint Htwe, adding that the impact of the Rakhine conflict was limited because it was not a major tourist destination. “We expect more than 3.44 million this year,” he said.
Last month the Canadian ambassador to Malaysia faced a Twitter storm after posting photos of a private holiday with the caption: “First day of 2018 unfolded on a Myanmar beach where the great surf is pleasingly turquoise coloured, warm, clear and clean – perfect for snorkelling to visit with nature and the fish.” The ambassador was ordered to delete the post.
Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, told the Telegraph: “Our view, for now, is that if we can continue to benefit local communities and help keep Burma visible to the international community through tourism, then we’ll continue to sell [holidays].”
Balloons over Bagan. Picture credit: Asean Economist