Hotel school aims to help build economy in war-plagued region

This article was first published in Hotel Business June 21, 2017; published with permission by the subject.

INTERNATIONAL REPORT—Building a hospitality school in an urban environment is one thing, but establishing a presence in an area plagued by a 70-year civil war is another. Developing and encouraging tourism in the Karen State of Burma (now Myanmar) has been a challenge for those hoping to revive the region—and financing options are hard to come by.

Following decades of conflict, in 1989, the military government in the country changed its name from Burma to Myanmar. More recently, the country has elected a civilian government (albeit one in which the military holds 25% of parliamentary seats and does not allow for civilian control of the military). As the country has transitioned, peace efforts have been made with various groups the government had long been at war with. Part of the bigger internal conflict in the country were the

Karen people, who once fought for an independent state, but have shifted focus to fair representation under a federal system. Many of the Karen people live in Karen State (known also as Kayin State), and many have become displaced persons or refugees in Thailand as a result of the ongoing conflict.

“Karen Enterprises’ vision is for sustainable authentic tourism to be the foundation of the future of the Karen economy,” said Nigel Grier, CEO of Karen Enterprises (which he defines as the business interface for the area). “The region is mountainous and rugged, and the landscape dramatic.

The people are warm and friendly. Importantly, globalization and urbanization have yet to arrive with most villages and communities still living a traditional lifestyle off-grid—due to the nearly 70-year civil war.”

Grier reached out to Dr. Rieki Crins, the founder of the Learning Exchange Foundation (LEF), an organization formed to “promote Bhutanese culture and lifestyle, connect Bhutanese citizens with citizens from other parts of the world to exchange knowledge and experience, and facilitate mutual learning,” according to its website.

In addition to establishing LEF, Crins set up a hotel school in Bhutan.

“He asked me to replicate that success by starting a hotel school for the Karen people,” Crins explained. “I had worked in Bhutan for 25 years, 10 of which was as a guide for high-end tour groups. During this time, I saw Bhutan’s tourism and hospitality sector develop. Many hotels opened, but there was no understanding of property hospitality service. In addition, unemployment was very high among the youth in the country.”

She converted a three-star hotel consisting of 12 rooms, a restaurant and a dormitory into a vocational hotel school in response. Eventually becoming the Bonge Institute for Hospitality and Tourism, the school, established in 2013 by LEF and a partner in Karen Enterprises’ project for Karen, provided students with quality hospitality training.

Grier was introduced to Kurt Hanson, Karen Enterprises’ co-founder, back in 2012; Hanson discussed the idea of developing a jungle safari lodge. Why? “Because most of the country is still forested and [also] due to the large numbers of tigers, elephants, bears and other iconic Asian animals, which are facing extinction elsewhere,” Grier said. “After visiting the area, I soon realized it wouldn’t be as simple as building the lodges; we would also need the soft infrastructure, trained and experienced employees for any enterprise.”

Karen Enterprises’ vision, said Grier, is “genuine sustainable development through implementation of projects and business models that fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goals.” He expects the organization will ultimately achieve this “through the careful selection of partners and working with entrepreneurs who share this common vision.

“Currently, there are no jobs in the areas that we are working in; sustainable tourism has the biggest opportunity to create direct and indirect employment as well as spinning off countless social enterprises to support these hotels,” Grier said about the market.

Setting up the hotel school hasn’t been an easy process—particularly with regard to fundraising (although the project does have anchor investors). “A lot of money is needed to get a project like this off the ground,” noted LEF’s executive. “Donors aren’t so keen to support a startup, even if it’s a not-for-profit project, because they know a lot can go wrong. However, because of the close ties between the anchor investor and a top Karen leader, both co-founders of Karen Enterprises, and our partners in the venture, we’re working with serious and trustworthy people.” There’s an ideal location for the school: a

There’s an ideal location for the school: a hotel in the border town of Myawaddy—just across from Mae Sot, Thailand. Awaiting the school’s opening, there are several hundred Karen youth in refugee camps vying to be accepted into the school. “The only challenge we are facing is a lack of funds,” Crins acknowledged. “It’s like the proverbial chicken-and-egg dilemma.”

Fundraising efforts include brochures highlighting the project and budget; speaking at conferences; and contacting high-
net-worth individuals. “We will also establish a scholarship fund so people can ‘adopt a student’ to support them during their training,” Crins said. “We have a Karen partner and a 50-room hotel to convert into a school. The next step is to recruit people with five-star hotel experience in Thailand [so they] can be trained. We’ll also provide internships for senior hotel students from Europe to help.”

Financing aside, the project is looking for partners to donate F&B plant and equipment. Experienced trainers and managers are also needed (a commitment of six or 12 months at a time is required).

Grier explained, “Karen State is at a watershed moment. With the right influence we can steer development in the right direction and avoid some of the double-edged sword of tourism challenges that the likes of Bali now suffer from.

“We are very fortunate to have the infrastructure of Thailand next door, and we feel this provides our projects a competitive advantage,” he said.

Training at the school will be unlike the teaching at a traditional hospitality school. For example, proper hygiene and life skills will be on the agenda for students—as they come from a different environment.

“The students will be from refugee camps; many have known no other life,” Crins said. “They’re very poor and most have never even seen a hotel. We’ll have to train them in basic life skills, such as time management.”

“We plan to open the hotel school in January 2018 to train 60 students: 20 in housekeeping, 20 in F&B and 20 as kitchen staff,” Crins pointed out, additionally noting the entire length of training and internship: “Training will take eight months, plus three months. As Myawaddy lacks decent tourist amenities, we aim to meet market demand with our great hotel, which will include an international restaurant and bar. With a steady stream of guests, our students will have a great opportunity to put their training into practice, and we expect the school to be on a breakeven point financially in one year.”

Karen Enterprises also has plans to establish a chain of luxury safari eco-lodges (five sites in total). An expert hotelier from the Netherlands is working in the area to plan the first eco-lodge. “We will start the design phase on the first lodge in Q4 2017,” Grier said.