By Sterling Wong and Livia Yap
Thousands of tourists have floated in a hot-air balloon over Myanmar’s historic Bagan plains dotted with more than 2,200 ancient Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Chances are they rode one of Memories Group Ltd.’s inflatables. The company, the largest operator of balloons in the area, rose as much as 30 percent above its placement price in its debut session on the Singapore stock exchange on Friday. Memories Group is a 47.6 percent-owned unit of Burmese conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd., which spun off its Myanmar tourism assets via a reverse takeover of SHC Capital Asia. The company raised S$10.7 million in a placement of 42.6 million new shares and 7.4 million vendor shares at S$0.25 per piece, which ended on Jan. 3. The stock trades under the MEGL ticker, and climbed as high as 32.5 Singapore cents. The Straits Times Index fell 0.2 percent. “Tourism is one of the lowest hanging fruits that will have exponential growth and we felt it was the right time to actually have an independent, dedicated platform to develop the tourism business,” Serge Pun, founder of Yoma Strategic and executive chairman in both companies, said in an interview in Singapore. His son, Melvyn Pun, an ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. investment banker, is the chief executive officer of Yoma.
At $450 a person, a hot-air balloon ride is worth about a third of Myanmar’s gross domestic product per capita in 2016. International tourist spending in the country is estimated to reach $5.2 billion in 2027, more than double the $2.3 billion spent in 2016, according to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council. More than 22,000 visitors rode on Memories Group’s balloons last fiscal year, Pun said. Still, Myanmar has been making headlines because of the Rohingya refugee crisis, described as “ethnic cleansing” by the U.S. and the United Nations, threatening to curb the country’s fledgling tourism industry. “We do not think that negative sentiments will be protracted,” Joseph Ng, an analyst at OverseaChinese Banking Corp. said in an email. “We understand that the conflict is limited primarily to the north Rakhine region and not widespread throughout the country, a reality that tourists should realize over time.” According to Pun, the balloon business has seen some cancellations, but the economy and tourism in general is likely to see limited impact as there are “enough forces that want to take the market.” “In terms of tourism, the main tourist spots today — Bagan, Inle, the archipelago where the islands are, the Shan plateau — they’re all very far away from the Rohingya conflict areas,” Pun said.
Memories Group is targeting high-end tourists with hotels and services and intends to acquire more tourism-related businesses with the proceeds of its placement, Pun said.