By Clara Ferreira-Marques
A Myanmar tourism company soared up and away from the country’s humanitarian crisis. Tycoon Serge Pun’s hot-air balloon operator Memories Group had a strong debut after reversing onto Singapore’s junior exchange on Friday. The shares have jumped 60% even as a campaign persists against the Rohingya Muslim population that the United Nations has condemned as ethnic cleansing. It’s hard to square the financial optimism with the political realities. Myanmar’s beguiling landscapes and historic temples attract travellers seeking unspoiled Asia. An end to decades of military rule in 2016 lured foreign businesses hoping to help fund everything from power plants to schools. An economic boom has yet to materialise, however. Pun is a go-to partner for outsiders betting on Myanmar. His property-to-banking conglomerate First Myanmar Investment was once the only company listed on the Yangon exchange. The vacation venture, though, will depend on more than his Mr Clean reputation. In some ways, trading on visits to Myanmar makes sense. The industry is in its infancy compared to neighbouring Thailand, where tourism accounts for about a third of the economy. Pun is promising a better trip. With a market value of about $150 million, against an estimated $1.5 million net profit in 2017, Memories Group is capturing the enthusiasm. What’s worrying is the implied distasteful argument behind it: that the distance between the ancient city of Bagan, a major tourist site where a significant piece of the company’s business takes place, and Rakhine state makes the exodus of some 650,000 Rohingya villagers something of an irrelevance. Despite growing interest in corporate social responsibility, investors have long overlooked ugly realities to do with the likes of diamonds, oil and cigarettes. A stark decline in market volatility over the past year also occurred as political volatility increased. Sometimes, though, a bright spotlight can have an effect on the bottom line. SeaWorld Entertainment, for example, suffered following the release of a documentary film that targeted the company’s treatment of killer whales. Many of Memories Group’s customers come from Thailand and China, where human rights have been a lower priority than in the West, however. That reduces the risk on any potential return.