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Ambitious but stingy ASEAN Travel Forum

Written by editor

(eTN) – The ASEAN Travel Forum (ATF) is Southeast Asia’s largest event for tourism. Besides being a travel show that welcomes over 450 sellers and some 600 buyers, tourism ministers and National NTOs from 10 ASEAN member countries meet together to discuss issues and even sometimes come to solutions.

(eTN) – The ASEAN Travel Forum (ATF) is Southeast Asia’s largest event for tourism. Besides being a travel show that welcomes over 450 sellers and some 600 buyers, tourism ministers and National NTOs from 10 ASEAN member countries meet together to discuss issues and even sometimes come to solutions.

The 2008 edition seems to have done better than usual in terms of achievement: A borderless ASEAN is confirmed from 2010 allowing citizens but also goods and services to move free around the 10 countries. Improvements at borders, new roads, cruise tourism development, an open-sky policy for ASEAN airlines, a common ASEAN road signage indicating tourism attractions, an ASEAN Green Recognition Award for hotels, all these elements show that a political and economical integrated ASEAN is slowly becoming a reality.

However, a more difficult task is to cope with the lack of ASEAN image. During previous ATF editions, member countries always complained about the lack of awareness from the public for ASEAN’s institution. And it is not the new budget voted for ASEAN tourism activities which will really change anything in a foreseeable future. If Dr. Sasithara Pichaichannarong, permanent secretary at Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports and Chairperson for ASEAN NTOs, explained that all countries agree for the first time on an equal contribution fee of US$7,500 per country or a total annual budget of US$75,000. “We will revise this budget up if we see the need,” she said.

To understand how ridiculous this financial involvement is, let’s underline that Cambodia, for example, has a budget already exceeding a million dollars per year. At this price, ASEAN ambitions will certainly be limited to a few banners and a multi-lingual brochure. It is true that ASEAN will also be promoted through each tourism board. And some of them, such as Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore, secure every year very comprehensive budget. However, it is not sure that the money would be used to promote also the competition. If Thailand outgoing Tourism Minister Suvit Yodmani declared that ASEAN countries are not competing with each other, most of them propose, however, products similar to its neighbour–seaside and beach/exotic culture/shopping/food experience. Difficult then not to be tempted to play alone on international markets.

The ASEAN is comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

Visit Year 1
A “Visit Year Mekong” planned for 2009 or 2010?
In parallel to ASEAN tourism ministers and NTOs meeting, another meeting between the six countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) was also taking place in Bangkok. Tourism development remains for the six countries and regions (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, the best tool to alleviate poverty, according to Thailand’s Minister of Tourism, Suvit Yodmani. GMS countries aim to double their number of international visitors arrivals from 24 million in 2007 to 52 million by 2015. Open sky policies are in place since a few years and had achieved great results with traffic booming at airports such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Luang Prabang (Laos), Udon Thani (Thailand), Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. To capitalize on the attractiveness of the Subregion, Dr. Sasithara Pichaichannarong, Permanent Secretary at Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports, announced to launch a “Visit Year GMS” in 2009. “We do not have details on the way to finance it but I will be able to tell more by next March,” announced Pichaichannarong.

However, marketing documents of the Mekong Tourism Office and approved by the Asia Development Bank speak from a Visit Year Mekong in 2010. A budget of US$631,000 is already planned for 2009 and 2010. “I think that launching a Visit Year needs time, at least a year. It seems difficult to me that a “Visit Year Mekong” could now be organised by 2009,” declared Peter Semone, Mekong Tourism Office senior adviser.

Semone highlighted a series of initiatives such as the appointment of a new marketing manager, a more active and visible website as well as the revival of the Mekong Tourism Forum, a trade event for investors and NTOs. I do not believe that any money will be made available for 2009,” added Semone.

However, Dr. Sasithara wants to move forward. “We need as quick as possible this Visit Year to bring more awareness to the GMS,” she said. If a compromise is not rapidly found between both parties, it is finally money which will have the last word.

Visit Year 2
You said “Visit Year IMT-GT?”
ASEAN meeting are full of surprises. In a conversation with chairperson of ASEAN NTO Dr.. Sasithara Pichaichannarong, media learned that the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle- which basically includes Southern Thailand, most of Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesian island of Sumatra- is hosting a Visit Year in 2008. The event was launched early January in Thailand’s Southern city of Hat Yai. Great idea as this region offers some superb sightseeing and tourism products. Except that no one really heard about a Visit Year, probably outside the three concerned countries. According to a release from the Asia Development Bank, following the “Visit Year” grand opening, tourism promotion events such as sports, social and cultural activities will be held in the three countries during the whole year.

Another major obstacle is the lack of transportation between the three countries. Hat Yai Airport is only connected internationally to Singapore (too bad: the City State does not belong to the IMT-GT!!). Penang is more lucky with flights to Medan and Phuket… Medan is only linked to Malaysia. And what about international connections to Palembang or Padang airports in Southern Sumatra or to Kota Bharu in Malaysia ?

Dr. Sasithara announced that transport ministers are working to re-establish links between Medan and Thailand; and that they also study ways to wave landing fees at regional airports. Good but until a decision is taken, the Visit Year IMT-GT might be over. It probably explains why Dr. Sasithara already announced to prolong the event by another year.