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2 Apr, 2001

ADB Plans First Seminar on Poverty and Tourism at Board Meeting

KUNMING: For the first time, a seminar on the role of ‘well-managed and well-developed’ tourism in alleviating poverty will be featured on the programme of the Asian Development Bank when it meets in early May 2001 for its annual Board of Governors meeting.

Designed to come up with a set of policies on how to factor tourism into its new ‘overarching goal’ of poverty-reduction, the ADB hopes the two-hour seminar on May 8 will help it fine-tune strategies on how its loan and consultancy money can be used to create jobs, especially for women, distribute income to the rural areas, and protect culture and the environment.

While the subject has never featured in past ADB annual meetings, one of the bank’s senior executives said last week a growing number of bank governors are beginning to warm to the importance of ‘well-managed and well-developed’ tourism, especially in the light of the industry’s growth potential in Asia.

However, rather than focus on pursing the traditional style of development by handing out loans for more construction of roads, highways and airports, and conscious of the flak it is taking from NGOs for continued funding of such mega-projects, the bank is seeking to focus on developing ecotourism and community development.

At the meeting of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Tourism Working Group in Kunming last week, the bank’s Arjun Thapan, Manager of the Water Supply, Urban Development and Housing unit, said:

“Tourism growth must be based upon long-term sustainable strategies, including concern for distribution of the economic benefits of tourism, employment generation, development of conservation ethics, promotion of local products and infrastructure development. If it can develop along these lines, we believe tourism has the necessary characteristics to make it an ideal tool for addressing poverty.”

In a subsequent interview, Mr Thapan said the bank believes ecotourism “is an area where there is a direct link between the potential for economic development and the conservation of natural resources.”

Two regions that have been the focus of the ADB’s attention thus far are the six GMS countries and Nepal. In the mountain kingdom, the ADB is now into its third and largest project whereby a loan of US$20 million is to be given to help fund infrastructure in a number of little townships nation-wide which will then pave the way for private investment in specific tourism products and services.

The money, which will include upgrading of six provincial airports, will have to be matched by another US$5-10 million from the Nepalese government and other donor agencies. The head of the King Mahendra Trust Fund for Conservation, through which some of the money is being channelled, is to be one of the speakers invited to Honolulu to speak at the ADB seminar on tourism and poverty reduction.

The other region is the GMS itself where, Mr Thapan said, “Tourism is a sector where the subregional ‘whole’ can be greater than the sum of the individual parts.” The bank has been involved in project funding for several years, especially infrastructure to facilitate access to tourism spots.

However, in line with the new approach to tourism development, a new feasibility study being prepared for priority projects along the Mekong/Lancang river will identify ways to strengthen subregional co-operation and management mechanisms to preserve and protect the river, its environment, and its cultural and historical heritage.

This will include means of financing and shared management, especially by involving the private sector, Mr Thapan said, adding that the “key challenge” facing tourism development in the GMS “is to strengthen the institutional basis for sustaining sub-regional co-operation over the long term.”

In view of this, the ADB is calling for the convening of a GMS tourism ministerial meeting to provide higher-level backing for sub-regional co-operation schemes and catalyse private sector investment. It also wants the GMS national tourism organisations to help ‘sensitise’ other government agencies in charge of securing official development assistance to ensure their full co-operation.

Additional help for sustainable tourism development in the GMS is coming from groups like the Canadian Universities Consortium through its Training and Technology Transfer programme. The group was asked by the Mekong NTOs to research three villages earmarked for tourism development: Hong Phong, a basket-weaving village in Vietnam; Had Bai, Thailand, where a women’s group is running a weaving co-operative; and Pak Beng, Laos, a river-port that already gets a large number of river-cruise tourists every year but lacks adequate infrastructure to support them.

The CUC’s conclusion: A small-scale, gradual approach to tourism development that will allow tourism officials and local residents to manage the potential negative impacts of tourism as the industry develops. Community members must be equipped with the tools and training to independently manage tourism activities and plan for their future development. Indeed, in the case of Pak Beng, the CUC research team flatly suggested that “no further tourism development should proceed until the local infrastructure issues are resolved.”

In other developments, the official tourism website for the GMS is soon to be upgraded from a ‘looking’ to a full-fledged ‘booking’ spot. It is specially designed to provide a no-cost distribution outlet for the thousands of small guest-houses and specialist tour-operators in the GMS countries who do not have the marketing budgets to sign up with the big boys.

The next meeting of the GMS tourism working group, and by extension the Mekong Tourism Forum, will be held in Myanmar in March or April 2002.

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