BANGKOK, 9 July 2015: Last month’s Mekong Tourism Forum attracted at best 100 stakeholders from governments, NGOs and the private sector.
In its hey-day the event would have attracted at least 200 to 250 delegates for the day and half of meetings.
Ironically, for the first time in the event’s 12-year history registration was free, subsidised by the Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
But even that incentive failed to capture the imagination of busy private sector tourism stakeholders. They were conspicuous by their absence.
This year’s Mekong Tourism Forum 2015 opened to the signature theme “Unlocking the Potential of the Mekong Region via Innovative Partnerships.” The opening ceremony attracted 100 delegates who listened to deputy director general of Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, Ha Van Sieu, reiterate the commitment of governments in the six-country sub-region to partnerships and cooperation.
The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) is made up of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and two provinces in China (Yunnan and Guang Xi).
The six countries fund a regional office based in Bangkok that is supposed to coordinate development projects and lead the marketing of the Mekong Region through cooperation with the private sector.
But a look around the conference room in Danang indicated that the six governments are fast losing the attention of the private sector and particularly tour operators that handle tours to the region.
Private sector attendance has been dropping off at an alarming rate leaving just a few optimistic and committed tour operators prepared to give Mekong Tourism Forum yet another chance to be a meaningful channel for business and networking.
It is not happening. Public and private sector are not communicating, or creating partnerships. Government officials prefer to talk to their own rather than reach out and network and share information and plans with the private sector.
This results in grandiose master plans that essentially exact a considerable financial outlay, but fail to recognise that private travel firms are already selling creative tour itineraries that explore new routes in the Mekong Region. Leadership in the business of creating new routes and attractions is firmly in the hands of private tour operators and airlines.
Government officials insist there should be “enhanced collaboration in joint tourism projects to create high quality tourist products that promote the GMS to the world.”
They talk about attracting “strategic investors to build tourism products,” but they are failing to recognise that the real work of creating and exploring travel opportunities is already underway through the efforts of a few leading tour operators in the six countries of the Mekong.
The key players were not present at the forum.
A highlight of the forum was the Mekong Tourism Marketing Workshop that focused on discussing River and Ocean Cruise Tourism; Community-based Tourism; Adventure Tourism; and Food Tourism.
Note that the title referred to River Tourism rather than Mekong River tourism.
Possibly it reflects the single most mystifying factor of Mekong Region master plans and ensuing tourism strategies. They largely ignore the core features of the Mekong River itself.
Critics claim, the Mekong Tourism Office bites off more than it can possibly chew. Its objectives and business plan are awesome in scope and more awesome in the total lack of finance to execute even the simplest of tasks.
Yet when experts create expensive Mekong Tourism plans and strategies for eager government officials to file in their document libraries, the actual content that directly links to towns on the Mekong River is minimal.
There are tourism development zones that stretch across entire countries, but the river with is attractive towns and a variety of tributary side trips are given short shift. “It’s elementary dear Watson,” the astute Holmes would have said. No one would pay for a master plan that was whittled down to such an elementary conclusion. They have to be far more complicated to please those who fund such exercises.
The Mekong Tourism Forum in Danang was a watershed and wake-up call. Despite having one of the most creative programmes packed with workshops, boot camps and other fancy named content over four days, rather than a day and a half, the bottom-line was it failed to reach core players – Mekong Region tour operators.
If there were elements that cried for more attention at the forum then they were the role of the Mekong River and the importance of food tourism also linked to iconic towns that nestle on its river banks.
Mekong Tourism has to return to its watery roots. Make it simple and easy. It should have clear objectives that build awareness for a few iconic river towns that already have airline access and overland connections. Tour operators can extend the travel experience beyond those places are doing so right now.
As much as it upsets government officials in tourism, they have little or no influence on consumer demand or how tourism grows. It is firmly in the hands of airlines, tour operators and online travel booking sites. That needs to be recognised and supported.
The tourism figures for the Mekong Region are already impressive with an average growth rate of 12 % per year. In 2014, the GMS welcomed 54 million international arrivals, up 8.2% over 2013.
The market will grow if governments learn to interact and support their private sector partners better, so they can do the job they do best; creating and selling travel experiences.