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12 Jun, 2012

Thai Royal Projects to Get More Global Prominence at Mekong Tourism Forum

CHIANG RAI, North Thailand – In yet another indicator of their growing popularity on the global travel scene, Thailand’s royal projects are to be the subject of the opening keynote speech at the Mekong Tourism Forum that got under way here today. Mr Disnadda Diskul, Chairman, Doi Tung Development Project, will address the June 13 formal opening ceremony of the annual MTF with a talk on how the Mae Fah Luang Foundation has transformed the once denuded highland area into “a holistic and integrated sustainable alternative livelihood development initiative.”

Organised by Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports along with the Bangkok-based Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, the MTF joins a number of international travel events being held in North Thailand as part of efforts by the Ministry to narrow the marketing and promotional imbalance between North and South Thailand.

The event, which rotates through the GMS countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and China (Yunnan Province) is being attended by about 350 delegates. Participants will get a chance to visit Doi Tung, the Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park, Doi Tung Royal Villa, Hall of Inspiration and Cottage Industries Centre and the Hall of Opium, a state-of-the-art museum complex dedicated to the history of opium production and eradication in the Golden Triangle region.

Sustainability is the key focus. Twenty years after planting the seeds of Mekong Tourism with the first MTF in Pattaya, Thailand, this year’s programme reflects a good mix between marketing and management, past and future, technology and sustainability, communications and crisis management.

It is being held against a backdrop of major economic, geopolitical, social and cultural change, such as the re-emergence of Myanmar, the huge numbers-generating potential of India and China, the free-market opportunities and challenges of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the massive transportation and infrastructure development throughout the Mekong sub-region.

Says the programme, “The AEC will have a profound impact on the tourism and hospitality industry. Will the new demographics and customer profiles affect product development? How will the mega outbound travel markets and the linkages connecting China and India to the Mekong affect the region? How will it change the way the GMS region markets itself?

Myanmar in Focus

One entire session is being devoted to Myanmar, which 25 years ago was the first of the GMS countries to liberalise its visa regime in a bid to boost tourism arrivals. Since then it has lost considerable ground to its neighbours, but is now poised to catch up.

Among the numerous Mekong Subegion tourism VIPs at the forum is Myanmar’s Vice Minister of Tourism and Hotels U Htay Aung who is being showered with attention. One of the delegates, Mr. Jaffee Yee, said he plans to talk to the Vice Minister about liberalising visitor movements through the Tachilek border checkpoint with North Thailand in order to provide an alternative entry point to Yangon and take advantage of the many visitors who flock to North Thailand, especially in the upcoming winter season.

Two sustainability initiatives will be introduced by the newly established Community Based Tourism – International Research for Development Centre (CBT-IRDC), a Chiang Mai-based regional knowledge centre which provides research and education at the intersection of tourism, sustainable development, and community benefits.

One session will focus on addressing the sexual exploitation of children, described in the programme as being “one of the unfortunate dark sides of the tourism industry, particularly in developing countries.”

A number of key questions are being posed that will challenge the intellect of the participants:

A session featuring the next generation of tourism leaders asks: Are they happy with the world they are being bequeathed? Or are they being left a mess that may be too big to clean up?

Carrying Capacity

One of the ongoing challenges for the GMS is the smoother facilitation of travel, especially across the ever-increasing number of international overland border checkpoints. What can be done to improve on the current state of affairs? How can the subregion better encourage, develop and promote multi-county, thematic travel routes? Is a single visa for the Mekong a future reality, or just a distant dream?

At the same time, one session will seek to identify what is described as one of the most elusive formulas in travel & tourism — that of “carrying capacity?” How many visitors can a destination take before it hits the point of diminishing returns? Should the industry be doing more to identify a carrying capacity formula in order to make growth more equitable and sustainable?

Finally, MTF participants will breakout into six teams to examine the most pressing issues for the future of travel and tourism in each of the six GMS countries. Each group will seek to identify which factors are most likely to change, and which ones will have the greatest impact on the subregion for the next 20 years.

A list of recommendations will be generated and submitted to the GMS Tourism Working Group for its consideration.

On June 12, a number of workshops were organised to provide participants with an opportunity to get some historical background to the Mekong Sub-region and its development path. Two of the workshops on tour operators and guides were held at the Mae Fah Luang University, which, nestled in the midst of rich highland forest cover, boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in Asia.

Historical background

Former Thai Ambassador Suvidhya Simasakul, speaking at the tour operators workshop, traced the history of the region dating back to the geopolitical Cold War era rivalries between the U.S. and China. He noted how Thailand’s policy of prospering its neighbours had played an important role in the conversion of the region from battlefields to trading fields.

Mr. Roger Rajah of the World Federation of Tourist Guides Association was flown in to help train local guides on providing better services to the growing number of visitors. Mr. Ariya Banomyong, Country Business Manager of Google Thailand, provided an update of how Google is expanding its presence. He discussed how Google is helping more Thai SMEs set up websites and working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to provide street view features for visitors to Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai.

A special opening dinner was provided at the Mae Fah Luang Art & Culture Park, one of the most scenic function spots in North Thailand, where a number of pavilions set amidst teak trees highlight the culture and heritage of the region. Several students from the Mae Fah Luang University and another Thai educational body, the Rajabhat Institute, are participating in the MTF.

Further details on the MTF are available at http://mekongtourismforum.org/