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25 Jun, 2001

First Meeting to Link Tourism Along Mekong – Ganges Rivers

A relatively low-key meeting took place in Bangkok last month to build stronger tourism linkages between Mekong countries and India, one of the most promising future source markets for visitor arrivals.

The First Tourism Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Expert Group Meeting was held in Bangkok on 29 May, to identify ways to boost intra-regional tourism flows based on the long-standing historic, cultural and religious heritage linking the two mighty rivers of South and Southeast Asia, the Ganges and the Mekong. (‘Ganges’ is the anglicised version of the original Hindi name, ‘Ganga’.)

Tourism is one of several areas identified for stronger linkages under the MGC scheme, the others being culture, education, transportation and communication. The MGC is the latest in a number of emerging sub-regional economic groupings designed to boost trade, travel and social/cultural contacts.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) hosted this first meeting of national tourism organization representatives from Cambodia, India, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Representatives of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific as well as the Pacific Asia Travel Association attended as observers.

The number of outbound trips from India has doubled in the last decade and is expected to reach ten million by 2004. According to Indian travel trade show organiser Fairfest Media Pvt Ltd., in 1999, Indians travelling abroad spent a total of 70 billion Rupees; this figure is forecast to reach 192 billion Rupees in 2004. (The Indian rupee and Thai baht are roughly on par).

India is the biggest South Asian market for Thailand. Indian citizens can obtain visa-on-arrival at all international airports and stay for up to 15 days. Indian visitor arrivals totalled 202,868 in 2000, a major growth of 23.72% over 1999. The average length of stay was 8.72 days, much higher than the overall ALS of 7.77 days.

Similarly, the average daily expenditure of Indian visitors, at US$124.80 per person, was well above the US$96.27 daily average expenditure of all visitors to Thailand. Indian business travellers grew by 31.28% to 26,132 and convention delegates by 44.12% to 3,250.

There are 37 direct weekly flights linking Bangkok and four major Indian cities including Calcutta (12 flights), Delhi (16), Madras/Chennai (3) and Mumbai/Bombay (6) by Thai Airways International, Air India, Indian Airlines, Druk Air, All Nippon Airways and Cathay Pacific.

The TAT is planning to open a representative office in New Delhi in 2002. With India, too, looking at increased visitors from the Mekong countries, especially Thailand and Vietnam, the MGC tourism group is seeking to develop this growth potential to everyone’s benefit.

The projects and activities identified are similar to many of those already executed under the banner of other regional groups like the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN countries. India simply has to be added to these activities which include things like an inventory of regional cultural festivals, a tourism investment guide, and a directory of tourism products and services,

The member countries also agreed to share information on ecotourism promotion programme, air linkages and the highly-promising religious tourism circuit which would cover the huge potential market of Buddhist visitors to India and Hindu visitors to Thailand and the Mekong countries.

Media familiarization trips, a good source of low-cost publicity, are to be organised from within the subregion as well as from major tourist generating countries like France, UK, Germany, Italy, Scandinavian countries, ASEAN countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Also to be developed are more cross-border packages including all the MGC countries. Mr Ryuji Yamakawa, the ESCAP representative, noted the tremendous potential for promoting tourism along the Asian Highway, a report on which has now been completed.

Shrewdly, the MGC countries assigned Burma the job of exploring both the opportunities and obstacles for promoting cross border tourism packages. It is widely known that Burma itself is the biggest bottleneck for development of tourism along the Asian Highway.

One critical element will be the need to simplify tourist visa procedures, especially by the Indians who require visitors from all the Mekong countries to have visas. Laos was assigned to compile a report on existing visa formalities among the MGC countries and propose ways to relax them. Laos was also assigned to study the issue of boosting direct air linkages between MGC major cities.

The tourism group has not ignored the critical component of tourism training. The agreement sets out a plan to boost the sharing resources, skills and training facilities, exchanging missions of tourism personnel, and facilitating the flow of information access regarding the cultural and historical heritage of the MGC countries.

As these projects will eventually need some kind of base funding, Vietnam has been asked to compile a report on the feasibility of establishing an MGC tourism fund.

The report of the MGC tourism group is to be sent to the MGC Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi in next month.

TAT officials said this new initiative will help Thailand’s overall plans to diversify its visitor source-markets and reduce dependence on arrivals from the industrialised countries. China and India, both literally neighbours of Thailand, are gaining increasing priority in the TAT’s marketing and promotional plans.

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