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12 Jan, 2009

ASEAN To Jettison Tourism Brand

HANOI — Just a few weeks before the ASEAN summit in Thailand in February, ASEAN tourism industry officials have signed off on a plan to jettison the ASEAN brand name in their tourism campaigns and make it a co-brand to new tagline built on the name “Southeast Asia.”

At the ASEAN Tourism Forum here last week, representatives of the ASEAN national tourism organisations (NTOs) and the private sector grouping ASEANTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the US-funded ASEAN Competitiveness Enhancement (ACE) project to “develop a new effective marketing strategy which promotes Southeast Asia as a single destination.”

“The ‘Visit Southeast Asia’ campaign is expected to elevate the status of the region as a destination by building on the ‘Visit ASEAN’ campaign,” said the press release by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) which is funding the project to the tune of roughly US$4 million over five years.

It added, “The ASEAN NTOs and the private sector-led ASEANTA will continue to be the driving forces behind the new campaign. The new marketing strategy will co-brand ASEAN as the campaign sponsor.”

The MoU was signed on the ASEAN side by Mr Felix Crux, a senior VP of Philippines Airlines in his capacity as president of ASEANTA, and Mr Oscar Palabyap, the undersecretary for tourism of the Philippines and chairman of the marketing task force of the ASEAN tourism NTOs.

However, neither of them could clearly specify whether the new campaign would use the slogan “Visit Southeast” rather than the “Visit ASEAN” slogan employed by numerous previous campaigns.

Mr Cruz said that the ACE Project Director Mr R.J.Gurley had presented to ASEANTA a report quoting a previous study by the Australian aid agency Austaid as saying that “ASEAN” as a tourism brand-name had not worked because “ASEAN” was more identified as a political, economic and geographical grouping rather than a tourism brand.

On the other hand, he said, “Southeast Asia” was more commonly associated with tourism as a destination, especially in the wake of numerous tourism guidebooks and internet websites which promoted Southeast Asia with scant mention of the word “ASEAN.”

Both ASEANTA and the ASEAN NTOs were sold on this rationale, with the only apparent reservations being expressed by Ms Sasithara Pichaichannarong, Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Mr Palabyap said that although ASEAN countries had promoted the Visit ASEAN campaign over past many years, the campaigns had “floundered” and the ASEAN tourism ministers had instructed the heads of the ASEAN NTOs to “review the branding” and prepare a new tourism marketing strategy for the 2011-2015 period in the build-up to full implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area.

He said the USAID’s offer of help had come at just the right time. “We welcome the initiative. Hopefully, it can make the difference from the Visit ASEAN campaign of the past and the Visit ASEAN campaign of the future.”

Later, asked to clarify whether the new campaign would be “Visit ASEAN” or “Visit Southeast Asia,” Mr Palabyap explained that ASEAN would be a tourism co-brand to the main campaign. “We are not erasing the ASEAN brand-name,” he said.

Mr Gurley also showed this columnist a copy of the presentation he had made to both ASEANTA and the ASEAN NTOs, clearly referring to a “Visit Southeast Asia” campaign.

Mr Cruz was asked whether ASEANTA had carefully explored the full political, economic and other broader ramifications of the brand-name change, especially in the light of the drive to build a stronger ASEAN identity among the peoples of ASEAN and use that as a platform on which to build broader economic integration. He admitted that ASEANTA had not looked at it from that perspective.

He also admitted that ASEANTA had not closely analysed the reasons why the former Visit ASEAN campaigns had not worked. Most ASEAN tourism officials agree that this is because ASEAN NTOs have spent thousands of man-hours talking about promoting ASEAN as a single destination but never been able to come up with serious money, largely due to economic disparities between the ASEAN countries and inability to move beyond the system of equal financial contributions by each country.

Moreover, neither the ASEAN NTOs nor ASEANTA have full-time, well-supported secretariats to drive the campaigns.

As the ACE project is funded by USAID, Mr Frank Donovan, the mission director for USAID in Vietnam, was also asked to clarify the policy towards Myanmar and how it could be reconciled with the broader U.S. government policy of placing sanctions on that military-led country. Mr Donovan declined comment, referring the question to the USAID public affairs officer.

Mr Gurley said however that the brief of the ACE project was to promote the ASEAN region, without getting into any specifics about individual countries. However, the tourism promotion website to be set up will include Myanmar.

The same question was also raised by the Myanmar tourism representative in the official meetings, and got the same answer.

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