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The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong Photo: The Peninsula Hotels - Official Site via Facebook
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group (HSH), who operate The Peninsula Hotels, have entered into a non-binding agreement with Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd to develop a five-star hotel in Yangon. 

The proposed luxury development will see the Burma Railway Headquarters, a historic colonial building, renovated as part of a large-scale redevelopment in the city center by Yoma. 

The hotel will be a welcome addition to Yangon's over-stretched hotel scene —the Myanmar government recently announced that it is targeting up to 3 million foreign tourists annually by 2015. 

A master plan for Myanmar's tourism industry, funded by the Asia Development Bank and the Norwegian government, is currently being compiled and will be presented at the World Economic Forum in Naypyitaw in early June. 

The development of several hotels zones around the country is presently underway, while a new airport in Yangon and expansion of the capacity of airports at destinations such as Mandalay and Bagan are being discussed. 

Other international groups in the process of building hotels across Myanmar are Hilton, Novotel and Best Western. 

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The Myanmar government has announced that it is targeting up to 3 million foreign tourists annually by 2015, according to state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar. The announcement comes following a meeting between Htay Aung, Minister for Hotels and Tourism, and the Norwegian Ambassador Katja Nordgaard in Naypyitaw on Tuesday.

A master plan for Myanmar's tourism industry, funded by the Asia Development Bank and the Norwegian government, is currently being compiled and will be presented at the World Economic Forum in Naypyitaw in early June. 

Speaking at a tourism conference in Yangon in February, Minister Htay Aung said that growth in the industry would be full of difficulties and that issues such as transportation, human resources, building of infrastructure, and the preservation and creation of destinations all need to be addressed.

"We need the assistance of investors, organizers, business partners and practitioners to come and see the opportunities that we have, so that we can start working together for our mutual benefit," he said.

The latest figures from the government follow several ramps up in Myanmar's private tourism sector including the creation of a joint venture between Yangon day-tour company Journeys Nature and Culture Exploration and global group PEAK International Travel, a subsidiary of the world’s largest multinational travel and tourism company, TUI AG, earlier this week.

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A perennial tourist destination is Bagan, the ancient temple complex south of Mandalay in central Burma. Photo: Mizzima

Yangon day-tour company Journeys Nature and Culture Exploration will enter a joint venture (JV) next month with global group PEAK International Travel, a subsidiary of the world’s largest multinational travel and tourism company, TUI AG.

Journeys will change its official name to Journeys Adventure Travel when it receives government permission for the JV. It will first operate a branch of Urban Adventures, a brand that falls under PEAK, by June.

Urban Adventures is a global day-tour service listed to the Hong Kong incorporated WHL Group. WHL, a conglomerate of companies offering worldwide solutions to online travel, is poised to tap the Myanmar market through PEAK and Journeys.

“We recognize that a lot of our partners are small- and medium-sized enterprises, and we’re taking a lot of initiative,” said Len Cordiner, chief executive officer and president at WHL Group.

“We expect the launch of Urban Adventures in Myanmar within the next couple of months. We’re now operating in some 90 cities, and we’ve just recently opened in Havana.”

S.B. Chetry, Journeys’ managing director, told Mizzima on Thursday that regardless of the influx of brands registered to PEAK slated for operations through the Journey office, Urban Adventures will be launched on time.

“The itineraries have been done and we’re looking to launch Urban Adventures next month,” he said.

Journeys has been operating unofficially in Myanmar since 1985 and was the first tour company to receive a license from the government in 1991. It has branches in Yangon, Putao, and will expand to Kalaw.

TUI AG is headquartered in Hannover, Germany, and listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. It was formed in 2002 and operates about 3,500 travel agencies and 79 tour operators in 18 countries, its corporate profile states.

TUI AG owns a 56 percent stake in TUI Travel Plc., which operates in 180 countries and serves 30 million customers. TUI Travel, listed on the London Stock Exchange, is the primary shareholder of PEAK.

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Death-Railway- HINTOK-TAMPI- BRIDGEAn elegant cemetery in strife-torn southeast Myanmar has long stood as a lonely testament to the fate of thousands of prisoners of war who died building Japan's "Death Railway".

As the fast-changing nation now opens to the world, a reformist regime is considering rebuilding a stretch of the notorious World War II track to attract tourists and help develop border areas, where memories of the line have been eclipsed by conflict and poverty under decades of junta rule.

Local gardeners pluck weeds and tend flowers between neat lines of graves at the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Mon state for some 3,000 Allied troops who died building the line between Myanmar and neighbouring Thailand.

"After seeing this cemetery people do not want to see war. There should not be war in the whole world," gardener Myat Soe told AFP.

"Because the soldiers died the way they did the world remembers them with sorrow. Dying fighting is honourable, but dying like this is very sad."

Many epitaphs at the site, funded by the Britain-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are a heart wrenching testament of how bewilderingly distant the country then called Burma was for the families of those killed.

"We were not there to clasp your hand, you passed away without a last good-bye," reads the epitaph for 26-year-old Lance Serjeant Harry Dawes, of the Loyal Regiment, who died in September 1943.

Exhaustion, starvation, disease and torture were the chief causes of fatalities among those impelled by the invading Japanese to gouge a rail route through dense jungle and solid rock between October 1942 and December 1943.

About 13,000 prisoners of war—many captured in Singapore, the Malay Peninsula and what was then the Dutch East Indies—died during construction, along with up to 100,000 civilians, mostly forced labour from the region.

-- Built with pickaxes and shovels --

Robert Goodwin, an Australian veteran who worked on the infamous "Hellfire Pass" cutting on the Thai side of the border, said the men's relentless toil involved hacking through rock almost completely by hand.

"Every day that we worked, if anyone seemed to be slowing up they'd be belted with not just hands or pickaxes but with wire whips, with anything they could lay their hands on. The Japanese were cruel by anybody's standards."

On the Thai side, hordes of foreign visitors flock to see the track and bridge made famous by the film "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", and to ride on a stretch of the line still in operation.

The town of Kanchanaburi, a popular destination about three hours drive from the capital Bangkok, generated tourism revenue of over 2.4 billion baht ($84 million) last year, according to Thai officials.

That fact is not lost on Myanmar authorities keen to encourage development in the southeast of their country—a region emerging from isolation after years of civil war.

Ceasefire deals were reached last year between local ethnic Karen and Mon rebels under a new quasi-civilian government which took power two years ago after decades of harsh military rule ended.

Surveys have now begun to trace the route from Thanbyuzayat to Three Pagodas Pass at the Thai border, according to an official from Myanmar Railways, who asked not to be named.

"This is primarily for tourism. If we can connect the railway track on the Thai side, it will help tourism develop," he said.

Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, of the Myanmar Tourism Board, said there is "huge potential" to develop tourism around the "Death Railway" in Myanmar.

But he said efforts should not only be "focused on the past" and should also showcase the heritage of the local ethnic minority population.

"I believe we shouldn't invent the wheel again. What has been done in another part of the region shouldn't be done again in Myanmar," he said.

-- Neglected and forgotten --

There are, however, doubts about the feasibility of restoring the railway.

Rebuilding the track would make "little economic sense" because a hydropower dam on the Thai side blocks the original route, according to Rod Beattie, a historian who runs Kanchanaburi's Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.

The 420 kilometre (260 mile) line linking the Thai and Myanmar railway systems was aimed at resupplying the Japanese army as it fought British colonial forces and their allies.

It fell into disuse after the war ended in 1945 and much of the track was reclaimed by the jungle.

Myanmar was soon embroiled with its own internal strife as independence in 1948 heralded civil wars in ethnic areas.

In Thanbyuzayat there is little sign of remembrance beyond the gates of the cemetery.

An old locomotive and a last scrap of track on the outskirts of town acts as a memorial, but the rails have been swallowed by weeds and a huddle of statues depicting emaciated prisoners has been vandalised, smashed almost beyond recognition.

The railway has become a legend for local children, a group of whom eagerly led a visiting AFP journalist through the shady corridors of a rubber plantation to proudly display an anonymous mound of earth they were convinced marked the old route.

Gardener Myat Soe is encouraging local youths to understand the history behind the cemetery and said a planned museum would also help raise awareness.

"As long as the world exists, this cemetery will be a symbol of a tragic time," he said.

He recalled a 90-year-old Australian veteran who made the difficult journey to the cemetery two years ago to visit the grave of a friend.

"As soon as he arrived, he put down his bag beside the grave, saluted and burst into tears. It was the saddest thing I had seen in the nine years I have worked here. I cried beside him."

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Myanmar needs hotel rooms and it needs them fast.

One hears complaints of excessive price gouging and of guests being bumped when others were willing to pay more but – however crudely accomplished – supply and demand dynamics are clearly in play.

For now, there are only 787 hotels (23 are either four or five star) and roughly 28,000 hotel rooms in the entire country. By way of comparison Bangkok alone has 42,000 registered rooms and many more when those not registered are factored in.

It does look like at least some help is arriving in the form of international hotel chains setting up shop. Changes in the nation’s foreign investment law this February, in particular about the degree of ownership allowed, and tax benefits on offer, may be prompting the big hotel brands to have a closer look.

A Western tourist pours water at a Buddhist shrine in Myanmar for good luck and prosperity.Accor, a French hospitality group, set to open three new hotels in Myanmar is no small player. The company is already active in 92 countries with over 3,500 hotels and some 450,000 rooms. Already in the Asia-Pacific region – from India and China to Fiji and New Zealand – it has 96 hotels and 23,425 rooms.

First to open in Myanmar this year will be the 168-room McGallery Hotel in Naypyitaw, which will be Naypyitaw’s first internationally branded upscale hotel. By the end of 2013 Accor expects to have finished building the 366-room Novotel Yangon Max and in 2015 there will be the 366-room Novotel Mandalay Mingalar.

On March 6, 2013, Hilton Worldwide signed an agreement with LP Holding Ltd for the latter to manage the 21-storey, 300-room Hilton Yangon, due to open next year in LP’s Centrepoint Towers at the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Merchant Street, across from the High Court Building.

Best Western International Inc, with over 4,000 hotels and currently operating in 8 out of 10 ASEAN countries, is also coming in. The company is looking for local partners and is considering Yangon, Naypyitaw and Mandalay as possible locations, along with Sittwe, Bago, Bagan and Inle Lake and figures, of its three brands, to use its mid-scale Best Western one.

And Vietnam’s top construction group Hoang Anh Gai Lai Co Ltd, received permission in December 2012 from the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) to construct two buildings, one of which will be a 400 plus-room five-star hotel on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road in Yangon. At that time Vietnamese news sources said that there were 35 hotels projects in Myanmar with a projected 6,235 rooms.

Smaller fry are joining in as well. Myanmar national Serge Pun’s Singapore-based Yoma Strategic Holdings is considering buying a plot of land in Bagan to develop a luxury boutique resort.

For full article, get the April 25 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.Mzineplus.com .
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A Nok Air Boeing 737-400 (2007)  Photo: Mohonu / Wikipedia
Nok Air is adding Mawlamyine to its planned service footprint in Myanmar, now set as the first country for the budget airline's resumption of international services.

The airline intends to reach Mawlamyine, formerly known as Moulmein, from the thriving Thai northwestern border city of Mae Sot over the next three months with two flights a day.

Nok Air's Mae Sot-Mawlamyine service will be operated by the Saab 340B turboprop, capable of carrying 34 passengers, on a trial basis.

"The launch is be part of our ongoing assessment of traffic demand between Thailand and Myanmar," Nok Air chief executive Patee Sarasin told the Bangkok Post.

The airline has applied for permission to operate on a charter basis from the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).

Nok Air hopes to launch a Bangkok-Yangon service in October with two daily flights with larger Boeing 737-800 jets.

It will be the first foreign carrier to connect Mawlamyine by air with the outside world, and it is believed to be the second airline, after Myanma Airways, to serve Mawlamyine airport.

Myanma Airways flies domestic flights from Mawlamyine to Dawei, Myeik and Yangon.

Patee is upbeat about the potential of the Mae Sot-Mawlamyine route as it provides a safe, convenient mode of transport to the Mon city, the third largest in Myanmar.

While it takes up to nine hours to reach Mawlamyine by car from Mae Sot on a bumpy road, it takes only 15 minutes by air.

Business travel is expected to be the mainstay of the route's traffic on the anticipated economic development in Mon state, according to Patee.

The launch of the service will consolidate Nok Air's position in Mae Sot, where it is the only airline to offer flights—four per day on the Bangkok-Mae Sot route and one daily service to Chiang Mai, all operated by the Saab 340B.

The DCA is spending 840 million baht (US$30 million) to upgrade Mae Sot airport by extending its runway from 1,500 to 2,100 meters and building a new passenger terminal.

The expansion, due to be completed in 2018, will enable the airport to accommodate jetliners the size of the Boeing 737 with parking space for three of them.

The passenger terminal covering 7,000 square metres will be capable of processing 300 passengers per hour.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post on April 10.

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