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24 Jan, 2015

Why the 2015 ASEAN Tourism Forum in Myanmar is an historic event

Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar — More than 1,500 travel & tourism executives and government officials from within the ASEAN region and around the world are convening here for what promises to be a ground-breaking ASEAN Tourism Forum in many ways. Here are some points of interest:

(+) For the first time, Myanmar is hosting the flagship annual caucus of the ASEAN tourism industry.  This completes the entire circle of 10 member countries which have hosted the ATF since it was first held in Malaysia in 1981. It marks a coming of age for the country which, owing to a host of internal and external reasons, has had to skip its alphabetical rotation turn to host previous ATFs.

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(+) The word “Peace” has been cited in the event’s theme, as in “ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership”. Although decided more than a year ago, the focus on Peace has taken on new meaning given the prevailing geopolitical context. The ATF logo is a peace dove bearing an olive branch. But that’s it. The wording of this year’s theme is nowhere to be seen on the front-page banner of the ATF website. It is only cited in the welcome message by Minister of Hotels and Tourism U Htay Aung. Nor is the “peace” theme given much weight in the content of the ASEAN Tourism Conference.

(+) This year marks the 40th anniversary since the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam war. It was the end of that war that allowed peace to prevail in Southeast Asia and pave the way for the rise of ASEAN. Vietnam became the first of the Mekong countries to join ASEAN in 1995, followed by Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

(+) The delegation of 143 exhibitors from Myanmar is the largest ever at any ATF Travex, and comprises roughly 30% of the total of 415 exhibitors. Demand has been robust. Clearly, this event is set to catapult the entire Myanmar tourism industry to new heights. It will mean a robust Myanmar participation in many other travel trade shows worldwide. Myanmar is the only ASEAN country where the mountain highlands can offer a snow experience.

(+) This year will mark the launch of the integrated ASEAN Community, designed to be a borderless, seamless economic powerhouse that will capitalise on the combined strength of 650 million people to promote its overarching concept of creating “One Vision, One Identity and One Sharing and Caring Community.”

(+) This year will mark the completion of the 2011-15 ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan and the finalisation of a new one for the 2016-2025 period, to be launched at the 18-25 January 2016 ATF in Manila.

(+) This year will also mark the deadline of the 15-year period set by global leaders in 2000 to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals, and the launch of the post-2015 agenda, now known as the “Sustainable Development Goals.”

Hence, the ATF 2015 will provide a good opportunity to take stock of past progress and plan what-next within the rapidly-evolving context of the new local, regional and global realities. Clearly, many ASEAN tourism objectives have borne fruit, others less so. ASEAN’s roster of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats have changed enormously. Many of the strategies, policies and institutions that have “driven” ASEAN tourism since 1981 are in need of review.

One thing for sure: The ASEAN tourism industry has been a primary beneficiary of peace. Thanks largely to strong intra-regional travel, especially across borders, and its unique geographical location within four to five hours flying time of nearly all the megapolises of India and China, travel & tourism both to and within the region is surging. The region’s supply of hotel rooms and airline seat capacity is on the rise. It boasts world-class airports and highways, with seaports, railways and inland waterways set to be the next stage of development. From casinos to convention centres, rainforests to health & wellness retreats, ASEAN’s tourism assets offer an unparalleled experience. As an economic sector, travel & tourism is now too big to fail.

The last few decades of tourism development have been designed to capitalise on these assets to advance a single brand-image for ASEAN Tourism. The primary goal was to generate growth in order to create jobs and economic prosperity. Now that that has been achieved, or is on its way to being achieved, a separate set of issues has emerged. Generating the numbers is no longer the challenge, managing them is. The industry has to avoid becoming a victim of its own success. A deeper analysis will reveal the following:

(+) The overarching challenge facing ASEAN tourism is the preservation of peace, which makes the theme slogan of this year’s ATF even more prophetic. Peace is the conduit for all forms of progress and development. The former war-zones of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are among the world’s fastest growing tourism countries because they are at peace. Myanmar will now follow suit. On the other hand, Thailand, formerly one of ASEAN’s fastest growing tourism countries, suffered a 6.6% downturn in arrivals in 2014 because its internal peace was disrupted by political conflict. The Philippines, too, saw its geopolitical conflict with China costing it a fair volume of Chinese arrivals. Over the years, other destinations such as Indonesia also suffered when peace was disrupted by government changes and terrorism. These are lessons for the entire ASEAN travel industry to learn from.

(+) For ASEAN tourism to reap the fruits of peace, and promote both prosperity and partnership, it will have to ensure an unequivocal commitment to the creation of “One Vision, One Identity and One Sharing and Caring Community.” A study done by this editor for the UN World Tourism Organisation in 2009 and presented to the ASEAN tourism secretariat at the ATF 2010 in Brunei cited the following early warning: “The region’s cultural, social and ethnic diversity, certainly its major tourism asset, could also be a significant future liability.” The study argued that a huge imbalance between the region’s economic and socio-cultural agendas would pose a threat to the third political-security pillar of ASEAN integration. For reasons best known to it, the ASEAN tourism secretariat ignored the study entirely. Today, many of its recommendations and conclusions are being proved true in the wake of the socio-cultural, ethnic and religious tensions flaring in other parts of the world, which could well spread to ASEAN.

The Thai tourism industry has found out the hard way how a country that is marketed as the epitome of hospitality, friendliness and service can suddenly see its own marketing slogans be proved wrong. The Malaysians, too, are cognizant and wary of this. Fortunately, the UNWTO has stepped in to give the tourism<>culture linkage the importance it deserves. In early February 2015, the UNWTO will hold an inaugural ministerial-level conference with UNESCO in Cambodia to give a global impetus to this theme. At the ATF 2015, Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai will be briefing the ASEAN tourism ministers on the projected outcomes of this event.

(+) In his blog last week, PATA CEO Mario Hardy cited the need for more balanced dispersal of tourists between the increasingly congested popular sites. That’s the next tourism challenge. Low-cost airlines and the four bridges built across the Mekong river have done wonders for opening up new destinations within ASEAN. More connectivity is set to emerge between ASEAN and South Asia and China. That will mean ASEAN tourism landmarks may soon be in the same overcrowded boat as China’s Great Wall and India’s Taj Mahal in peak travel periods.

(+) The concept of promoting ASEAN as a single destination is interlinked with the role of travel & tourism in crafting a single ASEAN identity. The ASEAN tourism industry has long cited this as a primary goal, but the results have been sketchy. The people of ASEAN simply don’t know enough about each other, even in the travel industry. Many would be hard-pressed to list the 10 countries of ASEAN, or their capital cities. Many key past recommendations such as exhibiting under a single umbrella at travel trade shows have not transpired. ASEAN, too, sent confusing signals by creating a new tagline “Southeast Asia — Feel the Warmth”, the misguided brainchild of an aborted marketing consultancy project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

(+) The role, functions and responsibilities of the taxpayer-funded ASEAN tourism secretariat are long overdue for a review and overhaul. Indeed, ASEAN’s collective tourism success is far more attributable to the aggressive marketing by the individual country NTOs, airlines, hotel groups, convention centres and others, and the work done by ASEAN’s economic, immigration and transportation units to liberalise trade, open up the skies and facilitate visa-free access. The value of a strategic tourism plan is no longer what it used to be. Indeed, the upcoming ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-25 should have been put out on the ASEAN website for public comment, as is done in Europe and Australia. It calls for the development of a more inclusive tourism industry, but the plan itself has been compiled in a non-inclusive format.

(+) As a matter of priority, the ASEAN tourism secretariat needs to become more open and transparent. For years, the ASEAN Tourism meetings have been run as if they involve some kind of national security issues, with excessive secrecy. The official communiques and media statements are full of boring jargon. There is no reason for ASEAN tourism meeting documents to be kept “confidential.” In fact, the data and research exchanged therein could be of immense use to the private sector. The ASEAN tourism secretariat has commissioned studies on cruises, adventure travel and many other topics, but none were made public even though they contained very useful information. Country reports and other presentations made during the NTO meetings would benefit academia, investors, researchers, policy-makers and many other stakeholders. That alone would help create a more well-informed industry and lend more value to the substance of the meetings.

(+) Also overdue for an overhaul is the private sector grouping, the ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA). One look at its outdated website is enough to show that it has become a tired grouping waiting to be restructured, or disbanded. The public sector often claims that the private sector is the real engine of growth. Not in this case.


The ATF 2015 has finally reached Myanmar because the country initiated a process of change towards greater democracy, transparency and openness. Paradoxically, neighbouring Thailand, which once lectured Myanmar on the need for democracy and transparency, is now under a military government. Such fluctuations in fortunes add to the mesmerising beauty of ASEAN, a region that is working hard to promote Unity in Diversity, the Indonesian national slogan, and ensure that the melting pot of cultures, cuisine, costumes and colours remains its primary asset rather than becomes its primary liability.

If this ATF 2015 can chart that path, it will have gone a long way towards honouring the spirit and the letter of its theme: ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnerships.