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. Myanmar just hosted the 34th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Nay Pyi Taw, its relocated capital. This year’s theme was “ASEAN–Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership.” ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time (ever) since its inauguration in 1981.
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. Russia had been ASEAN’s fastest growing market, but the Russian financial collapse has evaporated those inbound numbers.
The fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is the region’s 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, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
This conference is laser-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Myanmar Tourism Minister Htay Aung is keen on promoting “Myanmar’s richness in culture and biodiversity…while sharing products and services for the local tourism players to showcase their products and services to the global market.”
ATF 2015 attracted 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, and international and local media.
More news from the 34th ASEAN Tourism Forum, by member country:
- Brunei: Brunei is a handy gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive or relax in a plush resort. Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it’s rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It’s also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.
- Cambodia: Cambodia has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for the tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. 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: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
- Laos: 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. The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. It’s also upgrading all four of its international airports: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng evolve from backpacker hangouts to upscale destinations.
- Malaysia: This is another year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. A highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The “Malaysia Truly Asia” campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chines, and Indian heritage.
- Myanmar: Myanmar tourism continues to grow at an amazing rate, breaking three million visitors in 2014 (another exponential year-to-year increase) after welcoming only one million in 2012. 2015 could possibly see five million tourist arrivals—so book ahead! The country is working to improve transit, road conditions and flight options. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm; $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.
- Singapore: One of the country’s largest projects is a high-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend it through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris art museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
- Thailand: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, western visitors typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. The “Amazing Thailand” brand (reinvented this year as “Thainess”) 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: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms.
Tourism promotes people-to-people connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving an ASEAN community. Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) noted that “ATF points to what lies ahead for the region where human capital is at the core of its sustainability and a robust tourism economy.”
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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 additional details about Myanmar’s ASEAN Tourism Forum, visit ATF-2015. ATF 2016 will be in Manila, Philippines.