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23 Feb, 2009

ASEAN Tourism Branding Change Under Fire

Replacing “ASEAN” with “Southeast Asia” as part of a regional tourism re-branding strategy would be “an exercise in futility” and “would not serve the fundamental objective of the grouping in the long run,” according to the first and only head of the now-defunct ASEAN Tourism Information Centre (ATIC).

In an email interview, Abdullah Jonid, a former chairman of Tourism Malaysia, said ASEAN’s brand image had suffered because individual countries had not vigorously promoted the region as a single tourism destination alongside their own individual countries.

Mr. Jonid was head of the Kuala Lumpur-based ATIC since its establishment in 1988 until its dissolution in 1996 as part of an ASEAN policy to bring all ASEAN sectoral activities under the direct purview of the headquarters. During his tenure, ASEAN undertook its high-profile campaign Visit ASEAN year 1992 to mark the 25 th anniversary of founding of ASEAN.

The disbanding of ATIC stopped the significant momentum that had been built up to promote ASEAN as a single tourism destination. With no-one in the driving seat, and the subsequent entrance into the organisation of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, with their poorly-funded national tourism organisations, ASEAN’s tourism drive lost focus and financial support.

At the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Vietnam last January, representatives of the ASEAN national tourism organisations 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.

Describing his views as “just an expression of interest and concern from someone who has devoted part of his working life in pursuit and in the interest of ASEAN tourism,” Mr. Jonid wondered how the ASEAN tourism executives had “come to such an important decision and conclusion that the name “ASEAN” is not a saleable brand and therefore can be discarded just for the sake of a few bucks.”

I wonder what ASEAN founding leaders who met on 8 August, 1967 in Bangkok would say if they are still alive today on such a move. Some industry friends likened the move to ‘someone selling their souls for cheap’.

He noted that the ACE project consultants had cited an Australian aid agency study to justify their claim that “ASEAN” as a tourism brand-name had not worked. But he said that was because “ASEAN” was not intended to be a saleable brand but the trick was to make it one.

The fact remains that the lack of visibility of ASEAN as a tourism destination is NOT (Mr Jonid’s emphasis) due to it being a political grouping, NOR an economic or geographical grouping, but rather because of the lack of commitment on the part of ASEAN member countries to seriously and actively promote the region alongside the promotion of their respective country.

Even when member countries decided to embark on the VAY’92 campaign, aside the funding aspect, only a handful really made an effort to promote the event alongside the promotion of their own country.

Yes ASEAN NTOs have spent thousands of man-hours talking about promoting ASEAN as a single destination but more often than not, the basic principal of cooperation and the spirit of “give and take” are often lost in the hassle of trying to secure the best possible return for the money that they have contributed to any given project.

So to me any smart branding guru can suggest change of the brand-name “ASEAN” to whatever they like but what is most important really is change of “attitude” and “mindset”. Let’s not continue “talking shop” under the guise of diplomacy.”

Mr. Jonid lauded USAID for its generosity in wanting to contribute the funds. However, he said, “having had the experience of positioning and promoting “Malaysia – Truly Asia” brand in previous years, the amount offered really is chicken-feed and may end up as another exercise in futility.

One need only to ask the kind of funding expended by STPB to promote “Uniquely Singapore”, the budget of TAT for promoting “Amazing Thailand” and that of Tourism Malaysia for positioning its brand “Malaysia – Truly Asia” to gauge whether the US$4 million would have any meaningful impact on brand “ASEAN” or “Southeast Asia”.

If the funds do have the desired impact, “then it is a lesson to be learnt by member countries which can lead to tremendous savings of their respective resources.”

Be that as it may, to me replacing ASEAN with Southeast Asia can be deemed to be an exercise in futility and would not serve the fundamental objective of the grouping in the long run,” Mr. Jonid said.

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