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19 Jun, 2013

As Tourism Booms in Mekong Subregion, Focus Shifts to Management, Sustainability

Guilin, China, (18 June 2013) – The promotion of tourism to and within the Greater Mekong Subregion entered a new phase on June 18 with the endorsement of a US$741 million funding package that will strive to better balance and manage the emerging issues in a booming part of the world. With all the six Mekong countries reporting strong growths in visitor arrivals, and the opening up of Myanmar set to give the subregion a further impetus, the focus of attention is turning rapidly towards ensuring management of resources, sustainability and meeting the demand for qualified human resources.

The new funding package was endorsed by the national tourism organisations of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China at a meeting of the subregion’s Tourism Working Group in Guilin, the primary tourism city of China’s Guangxi Province, which borders Vietnam. It was the first time that the TWG meeting had convened in Guilin, officially cementing the province’s presence in the roster of GMS tourism activities which had previously been dominated by Guangxi’s neighbouring province of Yunnan (capital: Kunming). Delegates at the Guilin meeting were astounded by the greenery, cleanliness, orderliness and superb weather conditions of what is considered to be one of China’s most beautiful cities.

The bulk of the US$741 million package is to come from the Asian Development Bank. Its 16 projects include 9 investment projects estimated at $734m, and 7 Technical Assistance Projects estimated at $7.05m. They include a number of roads, highways, piers, one tourism industry park, tourism information centres and the preparation of a new GMS Tourism Sector Strategy for 2016-2026. A number of the projects include vocational education and training activities, upgrading of water supply systems, sewage and garbage disposal, environmental upgrades and village-based pro-poor tourism activities. All the projects were proposed by the countries themselves and short-listed after coordination with other related ADB-funded projects, such as in the energy sector. They are subject to further approval at another higher level meeting of GMS senior government officials in August before being finalised by a ministerial meeting in December.

The money will add to the US$15 billion spent since 1995 when the GMS Tourism Working Group was established and a tourism development strategy initiated, with the support of the ADB, the UN Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific (UNESCAP), the UN World Tourism Organisation and the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Today, more than two decades later, the GMS has become arguably one of the great success stories in the history of travel & tourism — a region increasingly inter-linked by world-class highways, bridges and airports, with world-class travel & tourism products and services playing a major role in alleviating poverty and creating grassroots jobs.

The statistics speak for themselves. Take for example, two of the poorest countries, Cambodia and Laos.

In 2012, Cambodia reported 3.58 million arrivals, up 24.4% over 2011. Of the 2012 figure, 21% were from neighbouring Vietnam. Overland visitors, including from Laos and Thailand, comprised 49.8% of the total, thanks primarily to the now rapidly emerging Asian Highway network. The country now has 20 international checkpoints, broken down into 10 overland crossings with Vietnam, six with Thailand and one with Laos, plus three airports and one seaport. It is targetting five million in 2015 and eight million by 2020.

Landlocked Laos, which now declares itself as being landlinked, reported 3.33 million arrivals in 2012, up 22% over 2011. Of the 2012 figure, 1.93 million came from next-door Thailand and 705,596 from next-door Vietnam. It now boasts four international airports, nine border crossings with Thailand, seven with Vietnam and one each with China and Cambodia.

Their bigger brethren are also benefitting. Vietnam reported 6.84 million arrivals in 2012, up 13.86% over 6.01 million in 2011. Of this 1.42 million were from China, via the border crossings in Guangxi Province. Thailand, which has also long positioned itself as a gateway to the Greater Mekong Subregion, reported 22.35 million arrivals in 2012, up 16.2 %, and is projecting 24 million in 2013. China’s Yunnan Province reported 3.2 million international arrivals, up 17.36%, and Guangxi Province reported 3.5 million international arrivals (it did not provide a growth rate).

Myanmar is the current laggard but it is also the new kid on the block, and surging ahead. It reported 1,058,995 arrivals in 2012, a spectacular jump over 816,369 in 2011 and 791,505 in 2011. Armed with a new Master Plan and a burning desire to catch up, it is hoping to more than double the 2012 figure to 3.01 million visitors in 2015 and aiming for 7.48 million in 2020.

More growth is to come. China will continue to spew out its millions, and better air and road connectivity with India will open up the floodgates from the West. The advent of the Asean Economic Community by 2015 will further reduce barriers to travel amongst the 10 member ASEAN countries and their combined population of 650 million. Combined, the year 2015 could see the GMS being at the centre of the most historic change in wind-direction in mass-market tourism.

Twenty years ago, when the GMS tourism planning was still in its nascent stage, the meetings of the Tourism Working Group were dominated by long waiting periods before anything got done. Marketing funds were virtually non-existent, regulatory change was painstakingly slow, connectivity was lacking and facilitation was still under the control of security-conscious apparatchiks. Today, it is no longer a question of whether things will get done but by when. Countries are talking of further facilitating cross border movements via ID cards rather than passports. Border facilities are being improved significantly. In addition to the East-West and North-South economic corridors linking the GMS, the Cambodians, hosts of the next TWG meeting in November, have proposed a Southern Corridor link between Thailand’s eastern provinces of Chanthaburi, Trat and Rayong through Sihanoukville, Kampot, Kep, Koh Kong and Takeo province to the southern region of Vietnam.

With infrastructure, connectivity and facilitation in place, private sector funds are sure to rush in. Hence, the next stage of challenges is nigh. Says an ADB analysis: “Tourism is growing rapidly in all GMS countries, but benefits – and negative impacts – are highly concentrated. Investments in access and urban environmental infrastructure, HRD, and promotion of secondary destinations and multi-country tour routes are needed to mitigate negative impacts and spread benefits more equitably.”

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is already pursuing what it calls a “balanced strategy” that will attempt to decongest popular destinations such as Phuket and Pattaya. It is toning down the emphasis on mass-market tourism and focussing on niche-markets such as golf and health/wellness. Management of natural resources, the environment and waste will become a critical issue. Supplying requisite levels of human resources and averting crime against tourists will also be top areas of concern.

At the Mekong Tourism Forum on June 19, this editor will be moderating a panel discussion to focus exactly on that. It will hone in on topics such as: matching/measuring quality vs quantity, the role of sustainable/cultural tourism, controlling tourism development and preservation of GMS tourism assets.

If the success of the first phase of growth is any indication, the second phase of managing this growth will succeed, albeit in spurts and starts. There is much to attest to that. Guilin handles 200 million domestic Chinese tourists a year, but the city is in immaculate condition. Elsewhere in the region, the quality of museums has undergone a significant upgrade. Places such as Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still retain their old charm, even though the pressure of numbers is growing. Where there is a will, a way will be found.