Htay Aung, Myanmar's new minister for hotels and tourism, is busy trying to attract new airlines and hotels. "And our employees have to learn to speak English," he says.
Aung's position illustrates Myanmar's remarkable transformation from international pariah to budding Asian tiger. "We've become transparent, we believe in change," he says. And change they have: The country (which is also known as Burma) was ruled by military leaders until early 2011; for decades it was cut off from the rest of the world both politically and economically.
Myanmar's reforms have been handsomely rewarded: Barack Obama just visited the country last week, the first sitting U.S. president to do so. And with tourism a pillar of Southeast Asian economies, Aung plays a key role as Myanmar tries to attract not just political leaders but also the traveling masses.
"Myanmar is one of the world's hidden gems," he says. "The president [Thein Sein] is working to build relationships around the world, and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has traveled around the world to express her ideas about the future development of the country and also to promote Myanmar as a destination."
Pagodas, ancient palaces, jungles and beaches rank among Myanmar's prime attractions -- as does the fact that, because of its long political isolation, it hasn't been ruined by commerce and rampant development. Last year, 313,127 foreigners visited Myanmar, a 5 percent increase from 2010. That figure dwarfs compared to the more than 19 million visitors who chose neighboring Thailand last year. In a new development, Thais now often cross the border to Burma to buy Chinese counterfeits of Western brands.
"We also have weaknesses," acknowledges Aung. "Our infrastructure, including telecommunications, roads and airports, isn't very good."
But Myanmar has succeeded in bringing several international airlines to Myanmar and is vying for more investments. Aung proudly lists his countries many, notable assets: "We're the largest country in Southeast Asia. We have historic edifices [and] hospitable people, and our country is safe."
Where to go
River Ayeyarwady: You can travel in a traditional steamer.
Beach at the Bay of Bengal: Myanmar’s beaches are pristine and not overcrowded.
Yangon: This is Myanmar’s largest city and its commercial and cultural hub.
When to go
November through February: You’ll find nice weather and very little rain.