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3 Feb, 2016

An 11-point critique of the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-25

Bangkok – This year has marked the dawn of a new era for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The integration process, now set in stone, is intended to create a stronger, safer, secure and sustainable ASEAN by uniting the formidable natural, capital and human resources of one of the world’s most strategically-located regions.

Tourism has been identified as an important component of integration. The ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (ATSP) 2016-25, a successor to the previous 2011-15 plan, was released at the ASEAN Tourism Forum held in Manila between 17-22 January 2016. A textbook document that says all the right things, the ATSP II looks comprehensive and impressive at first glance. But a deeper analysis shows up numerous shortcomings that dilute its scope and value. Among them:

The front page of the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan includes both the ASEAN and Southeast Asia logos.

1.    The Plan was never opened for public comment. It was largely scripted in closed-door meetings amongst the ASEAN national tourism organisations. Although the private sector ASEANTA and international travel organisations such as UNWTO were given a say, there was no input from trade unions, civil society groups, local communities and the many other stakeholders. One of the ATSP II’s main objectives is “To Ensure That ASEAN Tourism Is Sustainable and Inclusive.” How can an inclusive tourism industry take shape via an exclusive planning process? If the process had been more representative and broad-based, a more effective and truly inclusive plan would have emerged.

2.    The Plan does not clarify travel & tourism’s contribution to the over-arching goal of ASEAN integration, viz., One Vision, One Identity, One Community. This goal is not mentioned at all. Nor does it mention any of the three blueprints – economic, socio-cultural and political-security – which constitute the big-picture roadmap of ASEAN integration, with clear goals, directions and strategies. Did any of the NTOs read the blueprints? As tourism is one of the sectors listed, it would have behooved the ATSP II to specify how it can both contribute to and benefit from the fulfillment of the wider goals of ASEAN integration.

3.    Neither does the ATSP II mention the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, the 17-point global agenda designed to achieve a more fair, just and balanced world. Including the SDGs as an equal objective would have nudged each ASEAN country to follow suit and given ASEAN travel & tourism a higher sense of purpose. ASEAN could have become the first region and travel & tourism the first sector to commit to incorporating the SDGs into the wider development agenda.

4.    The ATSP II priority remains focussed on marketing and driving  growth in visitor arrivals. That still remains the yardstick measurement of success. However, at the rate tourism is growing, marketing is less important than management. Given the populations of the Asia-Pacific catchment area and the enormous hardware and plant capacity in the pipeline, visitor numbers could double in less than 10 years. That may look good on a line-chart but will open up a new set of problems such as food waste, garbage output and water consumption. Tourists are primary culprits in all three. Countries such as Thailand are shifting to a “quality over quantity” scenario. The ATSP II’s focus on management of the ASEAN tourism product still plays second fiddle to the marketing focus. A projection of arrivals by 2025 under good, bad or average scenarios would have delivered a better assessment of the “golden egg” and the emerging associated challenges.

5.    The ATSP II does not place travel & tourism within the broader context of global, regional and other operating environments. The forces of change reshaping the world are full of opportunities as well as risks and threats. None are identified. Rose-tinted marketing plans only work in a stable operating environment, which is in increasingly short supply. One of the biggest issues affecting tourism last year was the haze which, in spite of the “traditional spirit of friendship and solidarity” that supposedly marks ASEAN meetings, originated in Indonesia and zapped visitor arrivals to its fraternal neighbours Malaysia and Singapore. Is it wise to sweep such critical issues under the carpet?

6.    Even on the marketing front, the ATSP II does not adopt a simple-solutions-first approach. ASEAN claims not to have the resources for heavy-duty marketing. Not true. The size of the ASEAN travel & tourism industry is in itself the best marketing and distribution resource. The plan should have called on the entire industry to make the ASEAN brand ubiquitous via a systemic emblazoning of the ASEAN emblem, along with the tagline “One Vision, One Identity, One Community.” The continued usage of the “Southeast Asia – Feel the Warmth” slogan only complicates the scenario. Trying to market a region as a single destination via a dual branding scenario in a contradiction in terms. Indeed, ASEAN tourism as a whole operates in total contradiction to the theory of synergy. The sum of the ASEAN parts is actually greater than the whole. A visitor to Thailand or Laos automatically is tallied as a visitor to ASEAN. The individual marketing firepower of the 10 countries is what really drives tourism growth to ASEAN.

7.    The Plan makes no mention of the need to track visitor satisfaction. It refers to Passenger Exit Surveys but mainly as a means to monitor marketing and branding efforts, not visitor satisfaction. Clearly, no ASEAN country wants its counterparts to know what visitors think about rogue tour guides, jewellery scams, taxi rip-offs, environmental degradation, poor signage, child-sex tourism and more. However, this goes to the heart of efforts to make ASEAN truly competitive as a destination. The ability of visitors to rapidly disseminate any negative experiences will grow stronger in future. A comprehensive regional inventory and analysis of common problems would allow a better sharing of experiences and solutions.

8.    It does not mention small & medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Globalisation is set to have a major impact on the way travel & tourism does business. But is the growth equitable? Who is benefitting most? Multinational corporations? Hedge funds? Brokers? Consultants? Private equity companies? Are the rich getting richer? Are wages and working conditions improving at the grassroots level? The average SME travel & tourism company faces an arduous struggle to survive against the giant corporations, and in an highly unstable operating environment. The ATSP II offers no indication of how to help them.

9.    It does not say how it will encourage industry innovation and entrepreneurship. Travel & tourism is perfect for harnessing the talent, creativity of young people across the board – from I.T. to culture, music, dance, environmental management, design and development, and much, much more. The ATSP II makes no provision for doing that.

10.    As in past years, indeed decades, the ATSP II cites the “restricted funds that are available to carry out the activities”. The NTOs now will turn to private and public sector partners, including the aid agencies, for cooperative assistance. This will again see various components of the ATSP II being influenced by foreign governments, brand-name multinationals and others. Had the NTOs come up with some creative ideas, such as asking for a small percentage of the gargantuan tax revenues generated by travel & tourism in ASEAN, to be allocated for special events such as a Visit ASEAN Year, it may have opened a few more doors. Quite possibly, no-one wants to mention that. It may draw unwanted attention to the role played by travel & tourism in tax evasion.

11.    The ATSP II’s biggest flaw is that it is entirely devoid of a sense of history. The ASEAN tourism industry has much to be proud of. Yet, none of today’s industry leaders know anything about an historic event called Visit ASEAN Year 1992. Travel & tourism was the leader and the benchmark sector for establishing the ASEAN brand 25 years ago. By studying the history of that epic event, industry leaders may gain a sense of pride in the work done by their predecessors and ask themselves whether they, too, are rising to the occasion. Such introspection may help them learn from the past, pinpoint mistakes and perhaps generate the humility and wisdom to avoid repeating them.


ASEAN travel & tourism needs strong leadership to guide and steer the process, and put some shine on the ASEAN tourism brand at global trade shows, press conferences and industry events. Such a presence is sorely lacking. The ASEAN Secretary-General Mr. Le Luong Minh came to the Manila ATF 2016 but did not say a word at the closing press conference. Mr. Eddy Krismedi, who manages the tourism unit, is a capable administrator, but that does not a leader make.

Rather than a “Strategic Plan,” ASEAN travel & tourism needs a SWOT analysis, a reality-check roadmap to navigate through the winds of change blowing through the region and the world. In fact, the entire ASEAN travel & tourism marketing and management apparatus needs a total overhaul, including the ASEAN Tourism Forum. The private sector ASEAN Tourism Association, now led by a NextGen President, Ms Aileen Clemente of the Philippines, has initiated a long-overdue restructuring of that grouping. The rest has to follow suit. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding in 2017 provides a good window of opportunity to take both a learning-curve look back and a fresh look ahead.