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8 Feb, 2007

Asean Tourism: Diverse, But Disunited

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the most diverse multi-country region on the planet. But its once powerful joint tourism marketing campaigns are no more.

From the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Singapore (first of a three-part series).

1. ASEAN TOURISM: DIVERSE, BUT DISUNITED: The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the most diverse multi-country region on the planet. But its once powerful joint tourism marketing campaigns are no more.

2. SINGAPORE: ASIAN PAST, AMERICAN FUTURE: Two Integrated Resorts due to emerge by the end of this decade will change the face of Singapore.

3. DON’T IGNORE ISSUES, ASEAN TOURISM LEADERS CHALLENGED: ASEAN tourism leaders attending the ASEAN Tourism Conference were told by a University of Hawaii futurist that “it may be misleading to assume that tourism will continue to grow in the future as it has in the past.”



This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN, 15th anniversary of Visit ASEAN Year and the 26th year of the ASEAN Tourism Forum. Inspite of this long history, for the ASEAN tourism ministers to still issue a communiqué after their annual meeting in Singapore last week talking of the need to promote integration means that ASEAN, has lost its status as a shining example of synergistic marketing. For all their sloganeering of “unity in diversity”, the ASEAN countries are no longer a team but a collection of individual countries. Growth is being driven more by national competitive fervour and private entrepreneurship, rather than a unified collective effort.

It is also being driven by an unmatched product. ASEAN is the world’s most diverse tourism region. From landlocked Laos to the sealocked Philippines, from man-made, resource-poor countries like Singapore to environmentally-lush, resource-rich countries like Myanmar, from the teeming millions of Indonesia to the miniscule populations of Brunei, from the booming Thai capital of Bangkok to the historic citadel of Angkor Wat, from democracies like Malaysia to the socialist capitalism of Vietnam, the ten countries are a mind-boggling mosaic of the colourful religions, culture, heritage and systems that fascinate visitors.

Buttressed by a location at the heart of the Asia-Pacific, the ASEAN tourism industry is booming. According to preliminary figures in the ministerial communiqué, ASEAN attracted more than 56 million visitors in 2006, +8% over 2005. Cross border arrivals make up a substantial chunk of that, followed by travel within the Asia-Pacific (driven by countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and more recently China and India). New markets like Russia, the Middle East and Africa are emerging.

While its huge diversity should be a source of strength and unity, it is also a liability when it comes to reconciling the different interests, systems and priorities in order to come up with decisions to address specific issues. Take visas, for example. Myanmar does not allow in anyone without a visa, while Laos and Cambodia allow in just about anyone upon payment of a small fee. Although the ASEAN summit in 2002 signed off on a tourism plan that called for all countries to grant all ASEAN citizens a mutual visa-waiver, implementation is left to bilateral agreements. The military government in Myanmar does not allow in any tourist without a visa while countries like Brunei also have restrictions, in order to keep an influx of illegal immigrant labour.

Another example is joint marketing. In 1992, the ASEAN countries came together under the banner of the highly successful Visit ASEAN Year, when the bloc commemorated its 25th anniversary. Although this was supposed to be the beginning of a stellar marketing campaign that would put the ASEAN brand on the world map, little has been achieved since.

The momentum generated by the campaign has been overshadowed by a spate of crisis over the past 10 years that has relegated the ASEAN tourism industry to fire-fighting mode. The slew of economic, political, environmental and social disasters include the haze, financial crisis of 1997, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, political turmoil, SARS and religious strife.

Raising funds for sunny-side-up campaigns also is a problem. ASEAN national tourism organisations pay only US$ 7,500 per year to a common marketing fund. This is because Myanmar says that’s all it can afford. Hence, other countries pay an equivalent amount, even though they can well afford more. Efforts have long been made to find other funding sources, mainly through private sector partnerships but these are sporadic and non-contiguous. Since the closure of the Kuala Lumpur-based ASEAN Tourism Information Centre soon after Visit ASEAN Year, there has been no tourism secretariat to coordinate and drive a joint campaign. All ASEAN matters have been placed under the purview of the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat where tourism becomes just another cog in a much bigger wheel.

The private sector is in a similar rut. The ASEAN Tourism Association, an umbrella grouping of the region’s hotels, travel agents and airlines, has long been trying to avoid being relegated to irrelevance. Today, it is based in Singapore, courtesy of the national travel agents association. The airlines seldom turn up for their meetings, or send some junior level staffer. The latest effort is to promote a Visit ASEAN Pass which, when looked at closely, is of questionable value in an age of direct internet bookings, low-cost airlines, individualised travel preferences, dynamic packaging and in-house airline holidays.

Due to the lack of a coordinated and well-funded marketing effort, ASEAN tourism is being driven almost entirely by the policy directives and marketing budgets of individual countries, airlines and the private sector. As each ASEAN country treats travel and tourism as a national economic priority for its job-creation and foreign exchange generating potential, governments are tweaking their facilitation and transportation policies to generate growth. [The next two dispatches of Travel Impact Newswire will feature a roundup of key developments in each country as presented by their national tourism organisations at the ATF.]

Although the tourism ministerial and association meetings achieve little, the ATF’s travel trade show, the Travex, does play a major role in showcasing the host countries as it rotates alphabetically around the region. In 2006, the Philippines held its ATF in Davao, the first time it has been held there, in an effort to bring jobs and economic development to the southern province of Mindanao. This year’s ATF helped showcase Singapore’s development and rejuvenation efforts. The 2007 event will be in Thailand which will seek to highlight its hinterland, the Greater Mekong Subregion countries of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Tourism to both Laos and Cambodia skyrocketed after the ATFs there respectively in 2004 and 2003. The only country to have missed out is Myanmar which was supposed to host it in January 2006 but relinquished the opportunity.

This year, although Singapore was the host, the Thais led the pack of sellers with 112 companies, bolstered by several more companies under the corporate umbrella. The buyers roster did not appear to reflect prevailing travel trends. Buyers from Germany, the U.K. and the US were in the majority with only three from China, 11 from India, 8 Russia and a mere handful from the Gulf countries. One interesting development was that buyers from Korea (11) exceeded those from Japan (4).

If travel to and within the ASEAN countries remains strong, it will be thanks to a changing environment in other ASEAN economic sectors. At the ASEAN leaders summit in the Philippines, just weeks before the ATF, the heads of state agreed to advance the region’s economic integration from 2020 to 2015 as they pursue a European Union-style economic community with liberalisd movement of people and goods.

Although ASEAN countries are working hard to focus on what binds rather than divides them, border conflicts, petty rivalries and economic one-upmanship continue to see them taunting and chiding each other. Singapore has a long-standing rivalry with Malaysia of which it was once a part. Recently, a political and economic row has erupted between Singapore and Thailand over the relationships between Singapore’s investment arm and companies owned by the ousted Thai prime minister. During the ATF, a football match between the two countries created a ruckus when the Thais lost, following what they considered a wrong penalty decision.

The tourism ministers agree that problems in one country also have an impact in the other. But Thai Tourism Minister Dr Suvit Yodmani said, “Policy differences between governments have little impact on travel and contacts between people.” Some change in focus is clearly overdue. The word “ASEAN” evokes no image. Many would simply consider it a mis-spelling of Asian. Most ASEAN students would not be able to name all 10 countries.

The ministerial communiqué contained little of significance – a website to promote cruise tourism, a plan to promote youth tourism. All these are corollary to the two other areas that figured in the communiqué – visa facilitation and accessibility. Although both are in better shape than five years ago, ASEAN tourism has a long way to go in building cross-sectoral linkages with education, environment and culture. As for dealing with other issues like the Chinese zero-cost tours and hypocritical Western travel advisories, the grouping is impotent. It proudly proclaims the development of a communications crisis manual. If the US attacks Iran, the shockwaves that will spread through the system will require that manual to be dusted off real fast.



It is often said that one respects and values most what one has the least. If time, good health and peace of mind are at the top of the list, land and its life-giving resources are not far behind. More than any ASEAN country, Singapore, host of this year’s ATF, has the greatest appreciation for what it least possesses – land and natural resources.

Since independence in 1965, the country has converted a miniscule population of 4.5 million and a landmass of a mere 692 sq kms into one of the world’s finest city states. Having neither agriculture, minerals nor major rivers, it has built up one the best-educated workforces into an asset that has played a major role in the creation of an entirely man-made tourism plant.

In so doing, the Lion City tapped into another “richness” – its multi-cultural heritage. In his ATF opening speech, Singaporean Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong referred to the region’s “long and fruitful history of interaction with the Chinese, Indian, European and Arabic cultures.” He added, “In no other region in the world can a traveller find such a diverse and comfortable mix of religions, cultures and cuisines. This is our common heritage. This is also the unique strength of ASEAN, a strength we should build upon in promoting tourism.”

This is about to change.

Two Integrated Resorts are due to emerge in Singapore by the end of this decade. A prominent part of both are casinos. After much internal soul-searching about whether they fit in with the culture, value and social norms, in the end, money talked. Las Vegas casino barons gained a foothold in the heart of Southeast Asia.

In May 2006, Singapore signed a contract for a US$3.6 billion dollar gaming, dining, hotel, retail and entertainment complex “that will define the future of Singapore’s tourism landscape.” To be located right on the waterfront in downtown Singapore, the Marina Bay Sands project is being developed by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and designed to “dominate the skyline as South-East Asia’s first integrated resort” with “a world-class luxury resort and casino, state-of-the-art convention and exhibition facilities, acclaimed restaurants and an unparalleled array of retail outlets.”

The project is a key component of Singapore’s Tourism 2015 plan which seeks to raise tourism receipts to S$30 billion, double visitor arrivals to 17 million, and creating an additional 100,000 jobs in the services sector. These targets will be met with the help of a S$2 billion Tourism Development Fund allocated for 2005-2015.

According to the developers, the project’s “breathtaking architecture will integrate seamlessly with Singapore’s urban waterfront, lush tropical landscape and vibrant cityscape.” At a media briefing during the ATF, it was made amply clear that a key business strategy would be to integrate it with the group’s other projects, such as the Venetian Las Vegas, the Palazzo Las Vegas and the two projects in Macau, the Sands Macau and the Venetian Macau.

The words “Asia” and “culture” were not mentioned once in the audio-visual presentation. The entire focus of the briefing was on how the group would be managing the asset to generate the required visitor numbers and return on investment.

Journalists pressed project executives to explain why the structure appeared to be more of a transplant of a Las Vegas monolith and paled in comparison to some of Asia’s more historical iconic structures. Responded the project’s VP Singapore Development and General Manager George Tanasijevich: “Stay tuned, my friend. We will definitely build local culture, tastes and interests into the project from top to bottom. You will see a local face in the food, entertainment and in the nature of the service provided.”

He added, “We don’t presuppose that we can take a Las Vegas model and cut-and-paste it into Singapore. It is inevitable that we will make some mistakes. But we are an extremely good asset manager, and the mistakes will be far outnumbered by the advantages.”

Mr Tanajisevich said that the group will incorporate its development experience from Macau and the global economy” as it seeks to “expand cultures well beyond the borders of Singapore and Asia.” He said he would “take issue with the claim that it does not have an iconic status.” He described it as “Singapore’s Opera House,” a reference to the Sydney Opera House whose jagged-edge design was also heavily criticised in the beginning but went on to become a hugely popular photographic backdrop for tourists to Australia.

He said the group was “very pleased with it, and proud of it”, and enjoyed the backing of the Singapore government which had subjected it to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it met the overall growth plans of the city-state. However, he admitted that the project will also have a heavily US flavour. The group had flown in dozens of American retail giants to generate interest in buying space. “They all liked it,” he said.

The other Integrated Resorts will be the US$ 3.1 billion Resorts World at Sentosa which will also boast US icons like Hollywood and US-style theme parks, hotel clusters and oceanariums. Jointly owned by Genting International plc and Star Cruises, the project will open in 2010. The 49-hectare Resort will be home to “Universal Studios Singapore, a theme-park uniquely planned for Sentosa that draws on Universal’s rich Hollywood heritage and global experience.” The Resorts World briefing made no mention of a casino although the ownership by Genting International and Star Cruises clearly indicated that one will be forthcoming.

If Chinese, Indian, European and Arabic cultures have shaped Asia’s past, the future is set to be American-style mega-malls, retail complexes, multiplex movie theatres, convention centres and casinos. Clonalisation is here to stay.



ASEAN tourism leaders attending the ASEAN Tourism Conference were told in no uncertain terms that “it may be equally misleading to assume that tourism will continue to grow as a world industry in the future as it has in the past.” Many new challenges are emerging, and “as leaders of the industry, you need to address these challenges and not ignore them.”

The remarks were made by Jim Dator, Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii. In a brief 30-minute keynote, he took delegates on a quick journey from the time when humans were “nomads, moving about in a veritable Garden of Eden so abundant with the riches of life that no one had to work or own anything,” to a future in which could see robots taking holidays. He described these as “possible alternative futures for the industry over the next 10 to 50 years.”

Recapping the human drift from its pastoral to industrial to the present technological means of survival, Prof Dator noted that today, “more humans live in cities than in agricultural villages and farms. And many work in office buildings producing, well, not much of anything but paper with words printed on them.”

Although “more and more of us have so much wealth and leisure time that we can play sports much of the time, and travel around the globe just for the fun of it,” there are still “far too many people in the world (who) are desperately poor, without enough to eat and drink. They may have leisure time, but they are too poor and sick to enjoy it. It is a struggle just to survive.”

However, he said, “it is the expectation of many people in the world that they, or at least their children, can become rich enough that they too can have big houses, big cars, and plenty of time to travel wherever and whenever they want. This is the promise of ‘economic growth and development’.

“We are told that if we work hard, invest our money, and follow the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, our nation will develop and we will get rich. That is what happened first in England, then in North America, then in western Europe, then in Japan, then in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. China and India, once poor, now are becoming rich. And we in Southeast Asia are becoming rich, and expect to become richer still, and leisured like other nations have before us.”

The professor noted that computer technologies were getting ever smaller and more powerful, while populations have increased “from nothing to over six billion in the blink of an eye, with most of the growth coming in a flash over the last 100 years.”

He noted, “At first, only the very religious, or the very adventuresome, or the very rich could travel. Two to three hundred years ago, many people in Europe took dangerous, slow and expensive trips from Europe to Oceania and the Americas in search of new lives.

“But as more humans became richer and more mobile and more communicative and more numerous, many people, first in developed nations, began travelling around the world for fun, as tourists. A new industry arose based on all of these miraculous developments. Because we had transportation and communication technologies along with an economic system that enabled people to purchase airplane tickets, make hotel room reservations, rent automobiles, book tickets to tourist attractions from any part of the world to any other part of the world, and to do it all simply by swiping a plastic card through an electronic reader–no cash needed to go anywhere or do any thing–the travel industry grew and grew and grew and become one of the biggest industries in the world!”

Today, he said “not only older people but more and more young people have enough money and leisure time that they too can wander around the world in pursuit, not only of jobs and a new life, but also simply for the fun of it.”

However, he warned that as a long-time futurist, “I know it is a big and common mistake to assume that trends will continue. It is a fundamental flaw of humans to believe that whatever is happening now will continue to happen into the future. For example, we believe that if things are good now, they will be good forever.”

He said that the industry needed to start considering “other alternatives” even though “some of them are not very pleasant to consider at all.” Others may seem to be science fiction. But many aspects of your ordinary daily lives now would seem like “science fiction” if they had been foretold 25, 50, or 100 years ago. So it is essential that you consider carefully what currently seem to be very strange things.”

He added, “There are very good reasons to believe that the global political-economic system that has dominated the world since the end of the Second World War may not continue much longer.” One driver will be global demographics, including the fact that in “more and more parts of the world, population is no longer growing” creating a “youth gap” in almost all developed countries even as the number and percentage of old people–and of very old people–is growing.”

Among the nations of Southeast Asia, there is great variability. The youth bulge is over and aging is setting in for Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. It is expected to continue for another few years in Brunei and Cambodia. For Malaysia, the Philippines, and Laos, the youth bulge may extend even longer. The countries of South, Central, and Western Asia are still growing with a very substantial youth component.

Equally important, Prof Dator said, is the question of whether people of all age groups “will be able to continue to move around the globe as easily as many have been able to do in recent decades?” Here he pointed to the imminent end of the era of cheap and abundant oil. “It takes energy to get energy, and at some point it will take more energy to get the oil than there will be energy delivered by the oil itself. This is the “net energy” question. And it is often overlooked.”

Even though many potential alternatives to oil exist, “none of them exist now on a scale or price that equals oil, and many do not provide a liquid fuel that we require. We can hope for technological breakthroughs but it will take more than hope — it will take a lot of money, energy, talent, research, sacrifice, and luck if we are to avoid a major energy shortfall in the foreseeable future. As agrobusinesses that feed the world depend on huge amounts of petroleum, along with many other oil-dependent sectors, “the competition for declining sources will be fierce.”

He stressed the impact of global warming and sea-level rise, water shortages, or “the spread of new and renewed diseases–diseases which tourist travel itself will probably help spread?” He added, “While tourism is the world’s largest industry, it is also one of the most vulnerable. Tourism depends entirely on people continuing to have lots of money and spare time. Given the fact that our global economy rides on a rising sea of debt, if there were to be a global depression–and that is entirely possible–one of the first things to go would be discretionary travel. Even business travel might essentially vanish, with what little global interaction still required being provided by electronic communication.”

At the same time, he said, “if ‘terrorism’ — or rather the irrational fear of terrorism–continues and spreads, more and more travellers may be both afraid to travel and totally frustrated by the increasingly intrusive ‘security’ measures they must endure in all aspects of the trip. Why put up with the indignity of being searched as though you were a terrorist just to go to a tourist destination where you have to endure the indignity again? or perhaps actually become the victim of a terrorist attack!”

The professor said he is “not predicting that tourism is over for these, or other reasons. Rather, I am saying that as leaders of the industry, you need to address these challenges and not ignore them. But you need also to understand that it may be equally misleading to assume that tourism will continue to grow as a world industry in the future as it has in the past.”

If current forms of tourism end, “what arises from the ashes may be completely different tourism from what we know now.” He referred to the emergence of “Dream Society of Icons and Aesthetic Experience” that would be “driven by interactive electronic technologies currently experienced most vividly through the computer and internet games that are so popular with young people everywhere in the world.

“Those games may foreshadow the future. Observe them carefully. No! More than that, you should play them happily yourselves, if you want to experience the futures! The games themselves derive from images and dreams created by Hollywood, Bollywood and other movies; from anime by Disney and now by Japan, Korea, and India; from popular music by the Beatles and now by K-pop; and from Disneyland and other theme parks. And, of course, from the dreams created and sold by the global travel industry itself.”

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