National Service

Aung San Suu Kyi’s quiet tourism push

Myanmar’s Hospitality and Catering Training Academy is Aung San Suu Kyi’s flagship project in her constituency. lauren decicca / getty images
01 February, 2016

When Myanmar’s most famous politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, spends the night in her constituency, Kawhmu, she sleeps in a fake hotel. The layout looks real enough. There is a spacious reception area with seating. Above a check-in desk, there are clocks set to various time zones all over the world. One afternoon in December, I was given a tour of the place, including Suu Kyi’s room, which had a flat-screen television mounted on the wall. “Last night, she slept here,” my guide told me. Suu Kyi had left several hours earlier to lead a highly publicised trash-collection campaign, organised by her party. She only stayed one night. The room was cleaned as if other guests would be checking in. But there would be no other guests. Using the common honorific for the leader, the guide added, “This room is only for Daw Suu.”

The fake hotel is a part of Myanmar’s Hospitality and Catering Training Academy. Opened in 2014 on the site of a cleared bamboo forest, the HCTA teaches students how to cook Western cuisine, wait tables, mix cocktails, pour wine and do the sundry menial jobs that come with working in a hotel. Half of the students are from Kawhmu, a township of 120,000 near Yangon, and the other half from across the country. Tuition is free, and courses take under a year to complete, with certification granted for one of two specialisations: hotel operations or culinary arts. The logo for the school, which graduated its first class in August, is a waiter serving a meal with a glass of wine. The academy is Suu Kyi’s flagship project in her constituency, and is funded by her charity, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, named after her mother. But why is a Nobel laureate and a world-famous leader so keen on people in her constituency learning how to make French bread and gin and tonics?

The answer may lie in Myanmar’s tourism story, which is symbolic of the change the country has gone through in the past five years. According to the country’s ministry of tourism, arrivals to Myanmar went from under 1 million in 2010 to more than 3 million in 2014. Phyo Wai Yarzar, the chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing Committee, said in an interview in late November that the number had grown to 3.9 million by the end of October last year. It was in 2010 that Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years. The previous polls, in 1990, were disregarded by the military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962. Though many political commentators called the 2010 polls fraudulent, and Suu Kyi’s party boycotted them, a semi-civilian government, led by a military-backed political party, assumed power. A slew of political and economic reforms followed, and a by-election in 2012 saw Suu Kyi and several-dozen opposition lawmakers secure seats in the parliament.

During the recent national elections on 8 November, when  Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy trounced the ruling party, there was no violence. One long-time travel operator told me that this was a good sign for the tourism industry. Contrary to widespread paranoia that the results would be disregarded, as they were in 1990, as of late January it seemed the NLD lawmakers will take their seats on 1 February without incident. This surprisingly undramatic handover of power can only bode well. According to data released by the ministry of hotels and tourism on 21 January, Myanmar hosted a total of 4.7 million tourists in 2015.

During my visit to Kawhmu on 13 December, I met Zwe Nanda, the director of the HCTA, who told me how Myanmar changed from a closed-off backwater to one of the fastest growing tourism markets in south Asia. From 2012 to 2014, he said, the hotel and tourism industries experienced a “25-percent growth rate,” which, he added, had “never happened in Asia.”

Zwe Nanda told me he got involved in the project after a conversation with Suu Kyi. His wife is a family friend of the politician. About three years ago, he was working in hotel management in England, with a specialty in international cuisine. On a visit to Myanmar, he dropped by to say hello to Suu Kyi. “She asked me what I was doing. I told her I was a trainer, lecturer.” Suu Kyi, he added, straightaway asked him to come back to Myanmar and start a hotel management school.

Zwe Nanda and I sat talking in the outdoor cafeteria of the academy, which is shaded by a covering of bamboo poles with vines creeping through them. The cafeteria stands at the edge of the campus, which has a series of buildings and classrooms centred around a manicured lawn. In the practice kitchen nearby, students wearing white chef’s jackets chatted together or worked on their practice meals. The bakery, a room inside the kitchen complex, was churning out donuts. In one room, a large group had assembled to see who had won a contest to make Christmas-themed gingerbread houses.

“In the hotel industry, there is no proper academic or vocational training at all,” Zwe Nanda told me, explaining why he and Suu Kyi located hospitality as “the area” to develop. He also suggested that there was an element of providence to the project. “This is what I know, so that’s why we started,” he said. “I think if she met an engineer…there might be an engineering school.”

But there seems to be more to Suu Kyi’s embrace of tourism than Zwe Nanda suggests. She spent a combined 15 years under house arrest between 1990 and 2010, when the military freed her after holding elections. During that period, she was part of a chorus of public voices that called on tourists to avoid travelling to Myanmar or supporting it economically in any way. In 1999, in an interview with the advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, she reiterated this demand. “I still think that people should not come to Burma,” she said. “Because the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals. And not only that, it’s a form of moral support for them because it makes the military authorities think that the international community is not opposed to the human rights violations which they are committing all the time. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.”

Not long after the elections in 2010, however, her tone changed, and Suu Kyi urged “individuals,” not groups, to come, but to spend responsibly while travelling. In an interview with the travel website Lonely Planet, she said that foreign tourists could benefit Myanmar “if they go about it in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government,” adding that if tourists make the effort “to meet people working for democracy,” then it might help.

Through her project in Kawhmu, she has gone even further, playing an active role in creating jobs in the industry. In 2014, Suu Kyi suggested that such institutes were pragmatic solutions to Myanmar’s problems. “Our society wants to have academia,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times when the school opened in 2014. “But we have to be practical. It’s a matter of equipping our children with skills that see them through life.”

Even the trash-collection campaign in December, which was supposed to be nationwide, was described in part as a way of keeping the streets looking nice for tourists. Though military-connected businessmen own many of the hotels and resorts that are benefitting from the influx of tourists, there is less talk about tourism vis-à -vis morality now. Nonetheless, many people still try to avoid businesses with military ties, which are everywhere. J’Donuts, a not-so-subtle imitation of the American chain Dunkin Donuts, is said to be owned by a descendant of a former junta leader, which led a friend of mine to label the jelly-filled snacks, only somewhat in jest, “blood donuts.” But even among the public, optimism about the tourism industry seems to override resentment against beneficiaries of the military regime.

After taking a tour of the academy’s grounds, I was introduced to someone from Kawhmu, a 20-year-old student from Kawhmu named Htoo Han Kyaw. “I joined this school because it’s really good for hotel-related things,” he said, as classes for the day wound up and groups of students headed for buses back to Kawhmu or to hostels in Yangon. “Now I am learning about hospitality and hotel operations, including housekeeping, food and beverages and front office. Additionally, we can learn English and computer technology.”

Before enroling, Htoo Han Kyaw worked at an IT company, but he was attracted to the sharp styles of employees at hotels in Yangon, describing them as “really cool.” He also thought a hospitality job would provide him with more security and could qualify him for employment abroad in the future. “I’d like to work in a front-office position,” he said. “I’d like to work at five-star hotels if it is possible.”