A unified tourism model in Southeast Asia? Takeaways from ASEAN’s 33rd ATF in Malaysia

Southeast Asia’s 10 countries are bonding…like Borneo orangutans

The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Recently, the 33rd annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) took place in Kuching, a city in Malaysian Borneo. With the theme “Advancing Tourism Together,” the conference focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination.

The fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, to Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—to, until recently, military-ruled Myanmar. Malaysia, the host country, has long understood and fostered tourism.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak noted that “Tourism is also vital for the socioeconomic benefits, as it promotes people-to-people connectivity—one of the key strategies towards achieving the ASEAN Community by 2015.” Multi-ethnic and multicultural Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on earth that harbor the majority of the Earth’s species, including 250 endemic reptiles.

ATF 2014 was attended by 1,400 delegates, including 10 Tourism Ministers, 462 international buyers from 60 countries, 900 sellers with 360 exhibition booths, and 75 media affiliates from 40 countries. The focus was the significant developments and aspirations of this booming region, including the profound support for the Philippine government’s rebuilding efforts after Typhoon Haiyan, as well as a united pledge to address climate change.

Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality, said, “ASEAN attracted 90 million visitors in 2013, an increase of 12-percent from 2012. This is a precursor to what lies ahead for the region: a robust tourism economy. And human capital is at the core of this sustainable success.”

At this goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers included Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.

Borneo hornbills advocating regional goodwill

Borneo hornbills advocating regional goodwill

More news from the 33rd ASEAN Tourism Forum, by member country:

  • Brunei: Tiny Brunei is a gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort.
  • Cambodia: Cambodia now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
  • Indonesia: The “Wonderful Indonesia” campaign continues successfully selling its brand beyond Hindu Bali. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
  • Laos: “Simply Beautiful” Laos is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion.
  • Malaysia: For the first time ever during decades of international travel, upon landing in Kuching, Malaysia, there were no forms required to clear immigration or customs, only a quick scan of both index fingers. The “Malaysia Truly Asia” campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
  • Myanmar: Myanmar had a 93-percent increase in tourism in 2013! Prohibitive to tourism for decades, its democratic rebranding includes visa on arrival and the acceptance of foreign investment. Every aspect of tourism is rapidly evolving, and securing accommodations can be difficult.
  • Philippines: Still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, when a Philippines Tourism Minister was asked about what stage of climate-change awareness, he replied, “Painfully, aware.” Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: “It’s More Fun in The Philippines”. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.
  • Singapore: Singapore is gearing up for a high-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, a project that aims to eventually extend through Thailand and all the way to Kunming, China. The “Your Singapore” brand drives an efficient tourism machine, including Formula One Racing Week (once featuring ZZ Top) which as has been extended until 2017.
  • Thailand: Thailand’s anti-government demonstrations continue, but the tourism influx endures outside Bangkok. The “Amazing Thailand” brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
  • Vietnam: Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. Russia is its fastest growing market.

This ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.

Sarawak Convention Bureau’s Mike Cannon summarized, “The ATF provided a timely platform to discuss and act on implementing innovative and sustainable initiatives to sustain our tourism industry. Sarawak Convention Bureau’s goal during this event was to ensure that delegates saw the best of both worlds. A corporate life of meetings and daily appointments, and the adventurous side of our rainforests, laid back lifestyle and warm hospitality of Sarawak.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. For details about ATF 2014 in Kuching, Malaysia, visit atf-malaysia.com. For travel ideas in Malaysia, try tourismmalaysiausa.com. ATF 2015 will be held in Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar.

Kuching’s Batik Boutique Hotel is a great launch point to explore Borneo. Once there, Planet Borneo Tours takes adventure to another level.

Bruce Northam About Bruce Northam

Bruce Northam, the writer and host of American Detour, has reported (mostly good news) from 135 countries. His visually rich keynote speech, Street Anthropology, is a hit at colleges, corporate events, and Governor’s tourism conferences. His book, Globetrotter Dogma, is an award-winning ode to freestyle wandering. Visit www.AmericanDetour.com.

Comments

  1. Most tourists who come to SEA tend to limit their visits to the mainland (with Thailand being the anchor and Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as “side destinations”) because mobility in the area is cheaper rather than archipelagos (like the Philippines and Indonesia) which they have to reach by plane.

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