Is Myanmar 'the next Mekong'?

By Michelle Baran
InsightHaving just returned from Myanmar (aka Burma), it was clear that the Southeast Asian country, which has been closed off from the rest of the world for decades because of internal political strife, is poised for explosive tourism growth.

And with the vibrant Irrawaddy River running straight through the heart of the country, it is also poised for explosive river cruising growth, with river cruise operators already sizing up the country and its market potential.

“We believe Burma will be the next Mekong in terms of general tourist trends but also in the river cruise segment,” said Samo Toplak, president and CEO of Value World Tours, which sells river cruises in Myanmar.

Toplak has signed a preliminary agreement to work with partners in Southeast Asia on a 50-passenger newbuild in Myanmar for 2014. And there are several other projects under way on the Irrawaddy.

In mid-October, I sailed for two nights on the newly launched 32-passenger Paukan 2012, owned by Ayravata Cruises (aka Paukan Cruises, a three-ship river cruise operator in Myanmar) and distributed in the U.S. market by Haimark Travel. The Paukan 2012 is of the same class and quality as the high-end ships being built on the Mekong River right now.

Orient-Express Hotels, too, has plans for a new, 50-passenger river vessel, the Orcaella, to be introduced in July. The Orcaella would be the second ship in its Myanmar fleet, the first being the Road to Mandalay, its legacy, 82-passenger luxury vessel.

Value World Tours currently offers seven-night sailings from Mandalay to Prome on the 32-passenger Katha Pandaw, which also launched this year. River cruises on the Irrawaddy can range in length anywhere from one to 10 nights depending on the operator and the itinerary.

“With increased air service, which is currently the biggest problem in getting there, and hopefully an increased choice of hotels both in Yangon and the main sites of Mandalay and Bagan … in the long term, we believe Myanmar will be the hottest destination in Asia in the next three to five years,” stated Toplak.

Toplak could very well be onto something.
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