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International relations

Myanmar to skip visas for Japanese and South Koreans

Government counts on East Asians for tourism as Rohingya crisis turns Westerners off

The golden Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon illuminated at night. Myanmar seeks to facilitate visits by East Asian nationals to put its many tourist attractions to use.   © Getty Images

YANGON -- Myanmar will waive its tourist visa requirement for Japanese and South Korean travelers, hoping to boost inbound traffic as Westerners shun the country over its treatment of a Muslim ethnic minority.

The one-year trial begins Oct. 1, timed to the start of the dry season, when tourism picks up.

Visitors to Myanmar have increased from around 390,000 in 2011, when the military began sharing power with a civilian government, to roughly 1.36 million in 2017. The Southeast Asian nation is home to many tourist attractions, such as historical Buddhist sites, and considers tourism a key source of foreign currency.

But the country has lost appeal for many Westerners as a travel destination amid international criticism of the military crackdown on the Rohingya. Visitors to Myanmar increased 2% on the year to about 680,000 overall in the first half of 2018, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. But Western Europeans plunged 26% to roughly 93,000, while North Americans decreased 15% to around 40,000.

The government sees potential for growth in Japanese and South Korean visitors, whose first-half tallies held steady at around 48,000 and 32,000.

Each traveler taking advantage of the waiver program will be asked to carry $1,000 worth of cash when entering the country to cover expenses. The government may also accept credit cards, for instance, as proof of funds in a nod to those in the tourism industry opposed to what they consider an onerous requirement.

For Chinese travelers, Myanmar will introduce a visa-on-arrival program. Visitors from Asia's largest economy jumped 36% to about 130,000 for the January-June half.

Myanmar currently does not require tourist visas only for travelers from eight fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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