As Myanmar opens, hoteliers see prospects

DAVOS, Switzerland Wed Jan 25, 2012 10:49am EST

DAVOS, Switzerland Jan 25 (Reuters) - Travellers hoping to glimpse the golden pagoda of Rangoon or hear the "tinkly temple-bells" of Kipling's Road to Mandalay may soon be able to book into a Westin or a Marriott, thanks to Myanmar's re-emergence from political isolation.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts - which runs chains such as Westin, Sheraton and W - and Marriott International both said during the World Economic Forum in Davos they wanted to start running hotels in Myanmar.

The former Burma, one of the most isolated countries in Asia, is being welcomed back into the international fold after years of sanctions, thanks to democratic reforms including the release of political prisoners by President Thein Sein.

"Marriott would love to be there if the conditions are right," said Arne Sorenson, president and CEO-elect of Marriott International. "Burma has captured people's imagination for decades."

Long ruled by an authoritarian military dictatorship that was suspicious of outsiders, Myanmar potentially has a huge amount to offer travellers seeking an exotic destination, with coasts, rainforests and cultural sites unblemished by the rapid development elsewhere in southeast Asia.

English-speaking schoolchildren grew up with Rudyard Kipling's wistful poem of "mist on the rice-fields", "the old pagoda looking lazy at the sea", and "a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land".

The only hospitality chains that operate hotels in Myanmar now are Asian-based companies such as Shangri-la Hotels & Resorts, which runs the Traders Hotel in Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, formerly Rangoon.

About 300,000 tourists visited Myanmar in its 2011 financial year, according to government figures. That is barely 2 percent of the more than 11 million people that visited nearby Singapore during the same year.

"I think it's time for people like us to look at Burma," said Vasant Prabhu, vice chairman and chief financial officer of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

"I think Burma is the interesting new opportunity - a little bit like Vietnam might have been 20 years ago. We have a decent presence in Vietnam right now."

Myanmar could also benefit from turmoil diverting travellers from other tourist destinations, such as the Middle East.

It is still too early to talk of a flood of foreign business. Asia-focused bank Standard Chartered - which operates in every Asian country besides North Korea and Myanmar - said it would consider opening in Myanmar if sanctions are lifted, although it is still premature to make concrete moves.

"We're looking at the changes very closely, but it isn't clear yet," said StanChart's Chief Executive Peter Sands in an interview.

U.S. and European sanctions, imposed in response to years of human rights abuses, have left much of the country in poverty. A third of its estimated 60 million people live on less than a dollar a day.