Growth of ‘zero-dollar tours’ for Chinese worries local operators

Two guards stand watch at the iron gate of Yangon Gems and Jewellery next to Hlaing Tharyar Ocean Shopping Centre in Yangon.

The gate of the compound is almost always closed. It only allows visitors who have pre-registered – usually Chinese tourists who arrive by the busload. The shop is said to be owned by an ethnic Shan-Chinese woman.

“Even police are not allowed to enter the compound,” a shopkeeper at a nearby store said.

A restaurant is attached to the shop and a 45-seat bus and two cars are usually parked in front.

“Three to 10 buses arrive daily,” other neighbours said.

Peeking into the brick-walled compound, all one can see are tall buildings, which appear to be staff quarters.

“There are raw and polished stones inside. The compound is about 30 metres wide with grinding rooms and showrooms. All prices are in US dollars. Guests make purchases using WeChat Pay, Mastercard and Chinese yuan,” said, a Chinese tour guide inside the shop who declined to be named.

There are at least three similar shops in Mandalay, and one of them has quite a large compound, said Daw Mi Lwin, a Mandalay-based tour guide.

Recently, many Chinese-owned jewellery shops with tight security have emerged in Yangon and Mandalay. Chinese-owned travel companies are getting a fair share of the tourism market, selling packages at a discount to Chinese tourists.

“In Hlaing Thar Yar, a company named Myanmar Lan San has all sorts of equipment to cut gems. The hotels and tourism minister visited personally after being invited. Senior officials of tourism associations have also been there,” said U Yan Win, chair of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.

Chinese tour companies are selling Myanmar travel packages at prices far below the market rates. In industry parlance these are known as “zero-dollar tours,” in which the traveller does not need to use foreign currency except for the air fare and travel fees. However, it is compulsory for them to make purchases at jewellery and other shops that are linked with the tour company.

Most of the operators as well as the travellers are Chinese nationals.

Many of them use Chinese currency, credit cards, and WeChat Pay, so aside from paying a US$50 (K79,942) visa-on-arrival fee to the Myanmar government, the rest of the money spent by the tourist flows back to China, according to some disgruntled businessmen.

U Naung Naung Han, general secretary of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, said the Chinese travel companies, unlike normal tour firms, do not promote national and cultural heritage and care for the environment.

He accused them of trading on the country’s natural resources, such as jade and gems, and contributing little to the nation, he added.

“These cheap zero-dollar tours are increasing but we don’t know the exact numbers. They sell their tours at extremely low prices on the other side, but once here, they hike the prices of the products they sell to make it all back,” U Naung Naung Han said.

The shops associated with the companies sell Myanmar souvenirs and raw jade and other gems, he said.

Chinese tourists on zero-dollar tours are taken to jade and gems shops that are linked with the travel companies. After they finish shopping, they are sent to hotels and restaurants that are also linked with the operators, said U Kyaw Win, who has been in the Chinese tourism market since 1997.

“Those on zero-dollar tours only have to spend for their air tickets. They don’t need to spend anything in the country for transport, food and hotels. The companies make this money back from the purchases the tourists make at the shops.

The hotels and restaurants they are taken to depend on the amount of their purchases,” he said.

The decision by the government on October 1 to grant visas on arrival to Chinese tourists does not benefit local travel companies, and the inflow of visitors from the west – which has been their bread and butter – remains in the doldrums, the local operators said.

“Some local tour companies have decided to join zero-dollar tour bandwagon. Myanmar has no law against the practice, so we cannot take action,” said U Kyaw Win.

According to Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, 198,256 Chinese tourists arrived from January to September, a 33.63 percent increase from the same period last year. But the government has no data on which travel companies the Chinese visitors use.

Daw Swe Mar Aye, managing director of Joyful Land Tours, warned that Myanmar’s tourism image could suffer because zero-dollar tours provide poor service to clients.

She said zero-dollar tours were discussed at the Myanmar Tourism Conference held in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this year, but the government has not acted.

“Tour guides suffer a lot. Since these tourists mainly come here for shopping, the travel companies bring their own tour guides,” Daw Swe Mar Aye said.

The jade and gems shops pay up to 35pc in commissions to the tour operators for bringing in visitors. Some of the shops do not allow local tour guides in.

“The Chinese visitors are warned that they will not be given meals if they do not buy anything. The shops usually sell their products at much higher prices than regular shops. This will cause problems later,” said U Kyaw Win.

Daw Khin May Yee said that besides taking jobs from local tour guides, the tour guides who are brought from China are explaining Myanmar’s history and culture incorrectly.

Of the 4407 licensed guides around the country, 106 are Chinese guides.

But U Zayar Myo Aung, director of the Tourism Promotion Department, said the minister of hotels and tourism met with Chinese travel companies last month to warn them against offering zero-dollar tours.

“If we find a tour company offering such tours, we will revoke their licence, impose a fine and blacklist them. We have received no complaints or reports about zero-dollar tours,” he said.

U Zayar Myo Aung said that regional authorities have to ensure jewellery shops catering to these Chinese tourists do not violate the law.

“All ministries should cooperate. Zero-dollar tours produce no tax revenue for the country, no job opportunities for citizens, and could hurt the country’s tourism image, so we all have to work to stop them,” he said.

In the meantime, business seems to be thriving for zero-dollar tour companies. The Yangon Gems and Jewellery shop and restaurant in Hlaing Tharyar township has opened new outlets in North Dagon Township in Yangon, according to local tour companies.

Source: Myanmar Times

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