Why I Have Taken a Bet on Myanmar
In early 2012, sitting in a Four Seasons lounge in downtown New York City half a world away from Myanmar, my business partner and I knew this much: For our business proposition to succeed in Myanmar, we would have to help improve the brand of the Southeast Asian nation.
We had successfully invested in other Asian markets, yet Myanmar clearly was unlike any of those.
Western countries had shunned Myanmar because of the government's heavy-handed treatment of its citizens. This was the place where credible election results calling for reform were annulled by the ruling junta, and a demure democracy advocate was confined to her home for years at a time.
But after the election of a reformist government in 2011, and the gradual easing of international sanctions, the economic potential of Myanmar started to become clear. The land was, after all, filled with ancient ruins, stunning landscapes and forgotten cultures experienced by few modern travelers.
We knew that Myanmar could easily become one of the hottest tourism markets on the globe. Yet the country would never approach its full economic potential with the brutal history of past governments hanging over its head.
(Read More: Is the Rush Into Myanmar Creating a Bubble Economy?)
Myanmar needed a new image—one that reflected the reality of the reformist government now presiding over the country and highlighted its rich history and noble people. To get there, we would need to take traditional branding in a whole new direction.
Within days of that New York hotel meeting, I was on the road to Mandalay. There and in other regions of Myanmar, I found a people who were beginning to believe real change was happening in their country. The culture and history captivated me. Ennobling cultural traditions vied for attention with breathtaking vistas, astonishing wildlife, and a wondrous mix of people. "Exotic" was not an overstatement.
So it was back to New York for sit-down sessions with executives at the world's largest travel company, Priceline. They listened and introduced me to their Asian subsidiary, Agoda.com, in Bangkok. In the end, my business partner and I felt good about what we and our new travel industry colleagues were proposing to do: Launch a high-quality website that would help re-introduce Myanmar to the world and invite global travelers to visit.
Inviting Reluctant Travelers
This would not be an easy sell. The country's reputation was in tatters. Many international travelers wrestled with unsettling questions about whether their visits to Myanmar would somehow make them complicit with a ruling junta.
To allay such concerns, we decided our site would spill all the beans about Myanmar, the good and the bad. The truth is that the positive aspects of Myanmar—the unique culture and unwavering optimism of the people, for example—far outweigh the negatives. A reasonably informed person can see that once he gets past the headlines.
But bad news from Myanmar kept coming in as we proceeded. Violent outbreaks between Buddhists and Muslims in western and central Myanmar are off-putting, to say the least. When an Indonesian hacker took down a Myanmar government tourist website it was nerve racking.
The bursts of bad news were not welcome, certainly, but they did help further direct our development of the site. While these highly publicized events probably weakened the resolve of global travelers mulling the decision to visit, they affirmed our conviction that selling Myanmar was predicated on raising awareness about it.
(Watch: Investing in Myanmar)
Prior to the launch of the website we blogged about the country's endangered exotic animals and the need to save cyclone-withstanding coastal mangrove forests. We extolled the teak forests and the cause of saving them against rogue clear-cutting crews. We gave context to ethnic disputes.
Myanmarburma.com went live in the second half of April. It is the first destination website to promote travel to the long isolated country involving leading brands in the global online travel industry.
The website is a business. We are not missionaries for Myanmar, but we are believers in its potential. A return-on-investment bright line is as critical for this enterprise as for any other. We anticipate a full return on the investment this year through hotel bookings and airline flight reservations. But the benefits go well beyond dollars and cents; the currency of goodwill also accrues to the country.
(Check Out: Special Report on Entrepreneur Asia)
Tourism is wave-making in its economic potential. Incoming tourists bring money and take away good feelings, in effect becoming ambassadors for future investors, ministers of economic growth. The economic future of any nation is partly determined by perception, and we are striving to change how potential travelers and investors see Myanmar.
Timing and Pluck
When we first contemplated this venture, the timing seemed urgent—and has proved to be just that. Pent-up global demand to see Myanmar had been unleashed. Reputable international travel companies with responsible travel policies were ready to serve tourists… and the tourists were suddenly feeling OK about touring this "new" destination.
The moment clearly had arrived for a travel website equal to the vigor and promise of a new Myanmar. With a little luck, Myanmarburma.com might just become one small part of a huge success story called Myanmar.
Kevin McKenzie is a Senior Partner at RiverWest Capital, an emerging market private equity firm. He is a Harvard University Digital Marketing Executive Management graduate, and Wharton Business School University of Pennsylvania MBA Finance Major.
CNBC and YPO (Young Presidents' Organization) have an exclusive editorial partnership. A key component of this partnership is regional Chief Executive Networks in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These networks are made up of cross-sections of YPO's unrivaled global membership of 20,000 top executives on the front lines of the economy, running companies that collectively generate $6 trillion in annual revenues and employ 15 million people in more than 120 countries.