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Burma just opened up after 50 years. But where are all the tourists?

As Myanmar comes out of five decades of Army-imposed hibernation, it is finding the tourist game a tough one to play.

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Foreign tourists visit an old Buddhist temple in the ancient city of Bagan, central Myanmar, Sept. 29.

Khin Maung Win/AP/File

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It has got the beaches and temples and culture to easily rival those of popular tourist destinations Thailand and Malaysia.

At night, the politically and culturally iconic Shwedagon Pagoda glimmers 325 feet high over a darkened Yangon. The ancient city of Bagan boasts a spectacular plain of more than 2,000 temples – some more than a millennium old – a short drive from Mandalay city is  the old capital of Amarapura, home to the U Bein Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge and site of hazy lakeside sunsets.

International tourists to the country will tell you that Myanmar (also known as Burma) has some breathtakingly beautiful places to visit. But here's the problem: Tourists are hard to come by. 

Earlier this week, local media reported that in the first nine months of the year, 357,159 tourists entered Myanmar. It will take another year or two for Myanmar to top the 1 million tourists per year mark, says U Naung Naung Han, the general secretary of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association.

While that low number may add to its allure as an off-the-beaten-path destination, compared with the 15 million to 20 million tourists that Thailand and Malaysia both see each year, Myanmar has a long way to go to tap the benefits of a tourist economy as it comes out of five decades of Army-imposed hibernation.

“Look at the example of China,” says Larry Yu, a professor of hospitality management at George Washington University in Washington. “China opened in ‘78 and it took them more than 30 years to become one of the Top 5 tourism destinations in the whole world,” he says adding that because of its size, China was in a better position than Myanmar to absorb large numbers of visitors.

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