Myanmar: From Generals To General Managers

Via The Economist, an interesting article on the rush to develop new hotels in Myanmar, with commentary on the challenges facing Myanmar’s development as a whole:

TO APPRECIATE the impact of the industrial hotel, fly an hour north-west of Bangkok to the industry’s new frontier—Myanmar. On the roof of the Asia Plaza, a decrepit Soviet-style hotel, a modern day plongeur in a singlet bemoans his fate. His wage of $50 a month “is not enough to feed my family”, he laments. A pal says the only worse job he has had was in a karaoke-and-sex club run for the pleasure of army officers during the years of brutal military dictatorship.

The generals stepped back from government in 2011—and now that Myanmar is opening up, global chains are moving in to oust relics like the Asia Plaza. “After this, there’s only North Korea,” says one hotel executive. For the moment Yangon, the commercial capital, still has few posh rooms; tariffs have tripled in two years. But in the city’s watering holes, alongside the gun-runners and diplomats, you find Swiss-trained catering specialists setting up hotel schools. Hilton, Peninsula, Accor and Best Western have signed deals on buildings. More will follow.

The process is not always pretty. Accor has teamed up with Zaw Zaw, a tycoon on an American blacklist because of his ties to the generals. “He jokes in meetings that it is all a military operation,” whispers one Accor manager. “Everyone laughs but no one knows if he means it.” But construction jobs are being created. Near the villa of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prizewinner who has led opposition to the military regime, a 400-room hotel is rising from a sea of mud. A short drive south the office of Yoma Strategic, a conglomerate that is developing hotels, buzzes with the Americanised twang of young natives who have returned from abroad to rebuild their country.

“After this, there’s only North Korea,” says one hotel executive

The task of running these hotels to global standards will not be easy. Public utilities are lousy, so hotels need their own generators and water-filtration plants. Credit cards work erratically, so hotels must be able to handle wads of greenbacks. One manager worries that the hotel boom will overwhelm the local rubbish-collection system. Still, all this should lead to more investment.

Food suppliers will also benefit. In a cold room next to his Yangon shop Ye Htut Win, known as “Sharky”, shows off locally produced cured hams, each with a hotel name tag. Once a cocktail-bar owner in Switzerland, he returned home to start a food firm that supports 350 jobs. Paolo Cerati, an Italian who trained as a missionary, runs a vegetable company from a garage. Cherry tomatoes and rocket are bused in from the war-torn north of the country (his main competitor smuggles in lettuce by taxi from Thailand). He supports 30 jobs and is investing $200,000 in trucks and depots.

Big suppliers are spending, too. In a showroom full of imported teriyaki marinade and French wine, Wang Li Jun, the boss of Premier Foods Distribution, says it plans to enhance its logistics chain, an upgrade Myanmar badly needs.

The new hotels’ biggest headache will be finding staff and training them in everything from using deodorant to coping with prickly guests. But the recruitment drive is great news for local folk, who will see their wages rise. For instance, Soe Myatt Htwe will soon become the country’s first French pastry chef. Her family are cow farmers who find the idea of a $100 meal “crazy”. She does not seem sure if she likes the taste of the food she cooks. But when she graduates she can expect to earn $300-500 a month, a decent income in a poor place.

By one official estimate, the hotel and catering industry could create over half a million jobs in Myanmar alone by 2020. For George Orwell, the kitchen hands of Paris were “the slaves of the modern world”. But in poor countries, global hotel chains offer some of the best jobs around.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 13th, 2014 at 8:19 pm and is filed under Burma.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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