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2 Mar, 2009

Asean Summit To Help Lift Intra-Regional Travel

Last week’s ASEAN summit is to set to give a major lift to intra-regional travel and tourism, from both a quality and quantity perspective.

While the process of ASEAN integration will drive travel for leisure, business, conventions, and many other sectors, the industry can also expect to come under rigorous check-and-balance qualitative scrutiny from civil society activists.

Recognised for its ability to create jobs and distribute income at the grassroots level of society, the importance of travel & tourism as a key component of the integration process was highlighted by numerous speakers at the business summit, media forum, civil society caucus and the economic ministers summit.

Presentation by S. Pushpanathan, Deputy Secretary-General for the ASEAN Economic Community and Siam Cement Group president Kan Trakulhoon, both cited the importance of building the ASEAN brand and identity.

Mr Kan said that one good way of doing both was to accompany all products made in the ASEAN region to be marked “Made in ?????, A Member of ASEAN.”

Similar things could be done for ASEAN travel with visitors being encouraged to visit the region as a single destination rather than just one or two cities within it. ASEAN countries participating in exhibitions abroad should also come together under a single “ASEAN village.”

The ASEAN media forum was the first ever, and speakers wondered why it had taken 42 years to organise it. The ASEAN media’s role in creating the stronger sense of identity and building cultural linkages was a key subject of discussion.

Asked Mr Thepchai Yong, Managing Director of Thai Public Broadcasting Service, “How much do people of ASEAN really know about ASEAN?” He said a team of reporters dispatched to probe this subject had discovered “not surprisingly that not many (people in the region) know that ASEAN will become a single economic community in six years time.”

In Bangkok, we found that 85% of the people we spoke to didn’t know that the current ASEAN Secretary-General is a Thai. So clearly Dr Surin Pitsuwan has a lot of work to do.”

Mr Yong added, “We can talk about charter, integration and all the other issues, but it’s the people that count.” He called socio-cultural linkages “the weakest part of the integration process.”

This may require us to devote more space to the ordinary lives of the people, the cultural aspect of the community and less on what the leaders are doing. There cannot be a sense of community unless the people feel they are part of the community.”

Mr Kalinga Seneviratne of the Singapore-based Asian Media Information and Communication centre (AMIC) said the ASEAN media could help to counter the negative publicity in the international press that comes when travel warnings are issued.

“Is there anything ASEAN media organisations could do by pooling their resources to provide more coverage of the region to international audiences?” he asked, noting that one conclusion of an AMIC consultancy report done for ASEAN was to hold an annual ASEAN media forum amongst media practitioners, policy makers, foreign affairs officials, academics and content producers to discuss better networking structures.

The question of the “ASEAN lane” at the international airports was also taken up. Some ASEAN countries once had this facility, but have done away with it. “All ASEAN countries should set up an ASEAN lane as the first step towards integration,” the speaker said.

One of the ASEAN officials explained that only a handful of countries had ratified the ASEAN framework agreement for visa exemption. Myanmar still required visas for all ASEAN citizens while others like Laos still require visas for Indonesians.

The response to that was the ASEAN lane should be set up anyway and could be used by those eligible for the visa-free passage, with the rest to follow as and when ready. “If we wait for all the ASEAN countries to ratify the agreement before implementing it, we may never get it moving.”

The numerous free-trade agreements are also coming under scrutiny. The ASEAN Australia New Zealand FTA, for example, contains numerous provisions for the liberalisation of the travel & sectors as well as the “movement of natural persons”, a reference to the ability of citizens of the FTA signatories to work in each other’s countries.

Civil society groups say that many of these FTAs are being signed without prior public scrutiny and inadequate consideration of the implications for workers, labour conditions, the environment and regional migration.

They are also worried about the impact of the economic slowdown on the more than 45 million migrants in the Asian region, up to 20 million of whom are “intra-regional” workers in Southeast and East Asia.

ERRATUM: Mr Abdullah Jonid, quoted in last week’s column, is a former chairman of Tourism Malaysia and headed the ASEAN Tourism Information Centre between Dec 1988 – March 1994.

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