My country is the last frontier and it is a latecomer within the region
How does a nation that is a late adopter in the tourism realm catch up with other regions? Yin Myo Su, chairperson and founder of Inthar Heritage House and Inle Heritage Hospitality Vocational Training Center, shares her insights on developing tourism in Myanmar through training, education and opportunity.
As someone who was raised within hospitality industry, can you share a bit of your background?
I was born and raised in Nyaung Shwe, the biggest town on the bank of Inle Lake in Shan State. Since my 1976, my parents have run a five-bedroom guesthouse — the town’s first-ever guesthouse. When we had visitors, my mom would prepare food and I had to entertain them after dinner with traditional dances as there was no nightlife in those days. I was thrown into entertaining and hospitality business without knowing that it would become my career some day.
At what point did you decide to make it your career?
When I was 10, I was told that I should go to Europe some day to study how to run a hotel. As per my grandfather, it was a good way for a woman to make a living. I found myself as a student at a hotel vocational school in Europe after the 1988 Uprising in Burma when the government shut down all schools and universities for more than 4 years. After 5 years there, in 1995, I returned home. Upon my arrival in Burma, I helped my parents renovate their little guesthouse. We built a couple more hotels and resorts for our family business as well as for some ethnic groups that got permission to open their areas to tourism after the long war with the Burmese army.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Twenty years ago, running hotels and resorts was not simple. The country was pretty cut off from the rest of the world. From seeking the permission for hotel construction to applying operation permit to getting financial resources to looking for material to use — it wasn’t easy. Even when you are more or less ready for operation, creating experiences for guests and marketing the business was burdensome.
How did you overcome this?
Because of the community around us, the challenges were surpassed and even more, those challenges made us more creative. They gave us chances to be more adaptable, flexible and patient and even pushed us to be very committed to achieve our goal. To me this is because of our community, our tradition and culture, as well as the rich nature that surrounded us in my area.
What are some of your long-term goals for the business?
To me, it is not simply a business to make money. It is a living example of the importance of community and culture.
People come and visit not only to take a simple vacation or a break from their daily life but also to see and experience the authenticity of our culture, people and ways of life. So it is very important to me that while we are growing the business, we also need to make sure that whatever we do have to be very responsible and sustainable for long-term — for the community, culture and people we are working with.
What drives you to keep growing and developing your business sustainably?
The major drivers are the projects that are dear to my heart. I was raised by very wise grandparents who taught me about creating “win-win-win” situations. Now that my country is opening up, I would like to contribute as much as I can by making sure that triple win is possible in the private sector.
Are there certain projects that are among your most meaningful?
Now, I am very privileged to have a team handling the operation of my family businesses, which has allowed me to create the Inle Heritage Foundation. It started in 2008 when I launched some heritage conservation projects such as bringing the Burmese cats back home to Burma, and promoting my grandmother’s traditional cooking as an intangible heritage preservation. I also run a farming pilot project to encourage good agriculture practices. At Intha Heritage House, we run wastewater management by using wetland system, water quality monitoring program, and an art and crafts souvenir shop based on fair trade to empower women while supporting our creative and young artists. In 2013, I established a vocational training center for the youth of my community, hoping to address several issues. I want to empower the lost generation of my country with some life skills; to give them not only environmental and social awareness but a set of employable skills to sustain themselves and to help them become good citizens.
What lessons have you learned from this area of your work?
I came to realize that it cannot be a one-woman job or even the work of one organization. It must become part of everyone’s responsibility — especially from us from private sector.
Do you have specific goals for the future of tourism in Myanmar?
My ambition was also to supply well-trained human resources for the increased demand for skilled workers in the service industry. It’s also part of the solution to address the growing problem of migration for work. It’s also to build the younger generation’s capacity to create sustainable solutions for the local community. Plus, to make sure that these kinds of sustainability projects can be replicated, not only in my country but also in other emerging countries around the world.
Can you share any advice for those who want to participate in tourism development in Myanmar in some capacity?
To those who are planning to visit us or help us or develop businesses in my country, I’d like to urge them to help us by not repeating the same mistakes that you already had seen or done in other countries around the world. Please study and try to understand well about us before you come and participate on setting good examples especially in ethical way of business.
What do you like to tell people who haven’t been to your country before?
I always boast to people who has never been to my country that people in my area live in houses built on water, we transport ourselves on boats that we row with our legs, and we have floating gardens. How many can say this way to explain about the uniqueness of their community and culture? I feel always privileged to be born in that special area. So this is my vow to protect it. We can make a dignified living without destroying all tangible and intangible richness that we have received from our ancestors.
What other challenges do you anticipate as tourism continues to grow?
As people say, my country is the last frontier and it is a latecomer within the region. We have so many challenges especially with mindset of the majority of our people for the past five decades. The education system here doesn’t provide enough independent and critical thinking especially.
What have you learned in your experiences as a woman in a leadership role within the hospitality industry?
We women need to contribute differently ever than before. I remember being shy and afraid to speak out, not to let lose other’s people face, even by accident, because that was the way we were raised. I faced some challenges like many women in our culture when I started working 20 years ago. However I was able to overcome that as I have never lost sight of my personal and professional goals. I always had one thing in hand each time I failed, and I observed. I learned to forgive myself and ask other people to give me another chance to fix it by trying hard but smarter this time. Believe me, I have failed many times!
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in your career?
“Caring means sharing” is what I have learned lately. For me, success doesn’t mean innovation. Success is when people copy the good example that you have set. The ripple effect is essential to me for a true sustainable and responsible development.
Hear more from Yin Myo Su, aka Misuu, on responsible tourism at the PATA Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference and Mart 2016 in Chiang Rai, Thailand, February 17-19, 2016.