International tourism in Myanmar, bolstered by economic reforms and the lifting of economic sanctions by the US, is fast becoming the country’s sunrise industry. Between 2009 to 2015, international tourism figures jumped from about 750,000 to over 4.5 million.
The economic upturn has also been a boon for Myanmar’s domestic travel industry. In 2015, over 2.4 million Myanmarese tourists contributed MMK 733.3 billion (US$540 million) towards the economy. During the country’s peak holiday season from September 2015 to April 2016, domestic traveller numbers soared to more six million people, reported the Myanmar Times.
Booking a hotel stay in Myanmar is a simple affair. Leading hotel booking sites such as Agoda, Expedia and Booking.com serve major cities in the country, including its capital of Yangon.
Some also turn to alternative apartment stays such as Airbnb, but those exist in a grey legal area and face penalties from the Myanmar authorities.
But the main issue with the above-mentioned booking platforms is that their target market is more often than not, geared towards international travellers — who tend to have greater spending power than the locals. Domestic travellers have to rely on non-tech solutions to source for affordable hotels, which is cumbersome.
Or at least, that is what Aung Phyo Lwi, Co-founder of Myanmar-based booking platform EzStay, says is one of the key pain points they face in the country.
“Here in Myanmar…hotels offer different prices for locals and foreigners. It means that foreigner price is higher than local price. International OTAs (online travel companies) are offering foreigner price that local people can’t afford,” says Aung.
“Travelers have to drive around in the city to find out which hotel is the best for them in [terms of] pricing, facility and room availability. It is time-wasted, energy-drained and annoying,” he says.
These sets of problems drove Aung to found EzStay, a Myanmarese-focused hotel booking platform. Aung says his platform is aggregating budget hotels, motels and guesthouses — establishments which do not have the resources to market themselves effectively, or at least, as extensively as those registered on international travel platforms.
Another feature that EzStay provides is a suite of complementary travel options, such as airport pickup and car rental services. These options are, however, still quite low-tech at the moment. Customers need to call EzStay’s customer service staff to arrange these services.
The platform is currently available in Burmese and English, to cater to both local and foreign travellers. There are over 100 hotels spread across different cities including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Taung Gyi, Inle, Kalaw, Pyin Oo Lwin. They cost from US$8 to US$80 per night.
Aung says there are currently over 10,000 monthly active users on the site. He hopes to onboard 500 hotels and release an app by the end of this year. Aung does not disclose revenue figures but says EzStay has accrued about 5 figures so it launched.
Aung took a few years to conceptualise and build the EzStay platform. He first started a travel agency business with his friends after graduating from university with a marine engineering degree.
Realising that Myanmar needed tech solutions to make its travel industry more accessible, he drafted up ideas for different digital travel solutions.
“I imagined a mobile app for flight ticket. However, it didn’t happen as I didn’t know about the technology and I didn’t have the network in the startup community,” says Aung.
In November 2015, he caught wind of a startup competition organised by the first accelerator in the country, Phandeeyar.
“I had no idea what a startup actually was at that moment. I enrolled it and I found my co-founder, Lwin Htoo Ko (CTO of EzStay). We participated in that competition with an idea of apartment listing and roommate matching website called RarHub and we got an honourable mention,” says Aung.
The first variation of EzStay was modelled after Airbnb, but because the government’s strict laws prohibit foreigners from staying in local homes, they pivoted to a ‘low-cost hotel booking’ model.
“Today, Ezstay is the result of iteration process in Phandeeyar Accelerator and my experience in the past three years in a travel agency,” says Aung.
EzStay is currently in the process of raising seed funding. Aung says he wants EzStay to be the dominant one-stop travel solution in Myanmar.
“We will first implement transportation tickets on our website as people want to finish their stuff in one place, transportation and accommodation. And then, our next phase is going into travel experience market,” he says.
Image Credit: EzStay