The walks, which leave from near Maha Bandoola Gardens at 4pm each day, are conducted by Sydney-born Australian, Gino Joseph, who arrived in Yangon in November 2013. Between 2006 and 2010 he worked in China and one his jobs was as a stand-up comedian in Suzhou. Keen to return to Asia but never having set foot in Myanmar, it was on the advice on his brother, who had visited the country as a tourist, that he chose the promise of the Golden Land.
Keen to establish a foothold in the hospitality industry, Mr Joseph hopes that volunteering his services as a group guide to downtown Yangon, will help him better predict future market opportunities.
“It’s a good way to gain an insight into the hospitality trade, to know who is coming over here, who are the people who might be my future customers, though right now I call them guests, because that’s what they are, they’re not customers at the moment,” Mr Joseph told Mizzima Business Weekly.
With Free Yangon Walks, he is clearly focusing on a niche market.
“I primarily work with the guesthouses, because the people staying in hotels are more likely to have come on private tours or are here for business,” Mr Joseph said. “I’m after the curious young travellers; that might well mean ‘the backpacker’, but backpacker in Myanmar doesn’t mean the same as it might in Thailand or Cambodia,” he said.
Mr Joseph says travellers arriving in Yangon are not expecting a party destination, such as Bangkok or Siem Reap. “They are here for something different; they are curious about a new place, that’s different, not that westernised and has a lack of tourists,” he said.
One reason why he chose walking tours is because of a desire to promote what he calls “non-destructive tourism”.
“The low incomes in Myanmar leave it susceptible to the bad sides of tourism; the drugs, the prostitution, the environmental and heritage destruction,” Mr Joseph said. “Since I’ve been here I’ve never been once offered drugs or prostitution, I was amazed and thrilled at how clean the place was in terms of that,” he said.
“I hope that if you can encourage the right sort of tourist; the person who comes here because it is clean from those problems, then that will direct the path of tourism that will be forged by the local industry.
“Hopefully the tourists then return home and tell people about these positives, that Yangon was a ‘beautiful place, has so much history, good street food, they found a great place to stay.’ Then people will come here for those reasons, rather than someone going home and saying, ‘oh there was a ping-pong show around the corner and hash was so cheap.’
“I think that tourism can do a lot of good for a country but equally there can be a seedier and potentially damaging side to tourism, right now Yangon can go either way.”
Addressing a walking tour group from the grand marble staircase in the hallway of the headquarters of the former Irrawaddy Flotilla Company on Pansodan Road, Mr Joseph offers a short history lesson about its activities before and after World War II. Then he recites some Kipling and jokes that his copy of the 1912 Thomas Cook’s India, Burma and Ceylon: Advice for Travellers and Residents is probably about as up to date as the ubiquitous well-thumbed copy of 2011 edition of the Lonely Planet Burma (Myanmar) that so many of his guests carry.
“The guide book says two days, one night, see Shwedagon, visit Scott market and get out, but with all its rich history, I think you can easily spend five days here,” Mr Joseph said, adding that as a frequent traveller, he is regular user of guides but believes that the changes taking place mean their information is often out of date. “The place is moving too quick for publications like that to keep up with and the internet is not moving quick enough to keep up with the progression of social media,” he said.
There’s much to see in Yangon, said Mr Joseph, but as many travellers spend only one night in the city deciding on an itinerary can be challenging.
He welcomes the support that his walks of discovery have received from guest houses and says many have been inspired to learn more about Yangon. They hope that by being able to provide more information they will make the city more interesting for visitors and encourage them to stay longer, and recommend that others do the same.
“Travellers often want to rely on the staff for recommendations, where should I go? What’s a good place for lunch,” Mr Joseph said. “Until now, those responses in Yangon’s guesthouses have often been based on proximity or at most, what they’ve read in the Lonely Planet.”
Despite gleaning as much information as he can from internet research or old books about Yangon bought from street vendors, Mr Joseph admits that discovering the city is a work in progress and he has much to learn, including the history of some of his favourite buildings.
The more he delves into Yangon’s history, says Mr Joseph, the more fascinated he becomes with it.
An avid supporter of the Yangon Heritage Trust, Mr Joseph hopes that the admiration expressed by those on his walks for the city’s colonial buildings will be noticed by the city’s residents and help them to understand the importance of preservation and conservation work.
This Article first appeared in the June 5, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.
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