BANGKOK, 12 July 2017: Achieving balance in Mekong Region tourism was the underlying theme of keynote addresses and discussions at breakout sessions during the 20th Mekong Tourism Forum held last week in the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang in Laos.
But will the region’s tourism policy makers listen to the call for caution, balance and possibly a rethink of long-term goals?
The region known as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) is heading for an astounding tourist head count of 66.9 million this year and based on the GMS Tourism Sector Strategy 2016 to 2025 the region is on track to welcome 95 million visitors by 2025.
Asian Development Bank, that funded the 10-year strategy draft report, will provide USD58,140.0 million in loans to improve tourism infrastructure across a region that covers, Cambodia, China (Yunnan and Guang Xi provinces), Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
In addition, China is investing billions in a railway line to link Yunnan province to Vientiane the Lao capital. It will eventually be part of a fast rail line linking, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Despite positive statements on growth and the adoption of ambitious ADB loan-funded projects the GMS Tourism Sector Strategy 2016 to 2025 notes that “creating more competitive, balanced, and sustainable destinations” is a priority “outcome” for 2025.
Mekong tourism requires perfect balance. It is walking a tightrope, spurred on by the promise of success and profit on one hand and on the other by the knowledge that sustainable growth must be achieved or the tightrope will snap. Mekong tourism planners have to lighten the load, tread more carefully and adopt a keener sense of what communities are seeking.
Keynote speaker Conscience Travel Founder, Anna Pollock, recommended a step back, a return to basics in order to achieve balance.
Calling on tourism policy makers to embrace a big picture approach that focuses on “what is going on in the world we live rather just inside tourism” she described the tourism industry as “inward looking” and prone to risk aversion.
“The travel industry is concerned about getting bigger, always thinking of ways to attract more visitors, no one thinks about why we are doing this, or what is the net positive impact on the community… we cannot get bigger but we can grow.”
She called for a serious rethink of the classic five Ps business model; product, price, promote, place (distribution) and position (USP).
“Under pinning the model was the assumption that the sole business objective was to return a profit to the shareholders. If you did that you were doing a good job.
“It was the way we did it and thought… it was faulty, our understanding of our planet doesn’t work.”
She even challenged the notion that tourism is an industry and asked why we describe travel experiences as travel products and where yield, occupancy and profit are the key words.
“We talk about tourism being an industry… it gave us legitimacy in the 1950s, but we are not an industry we are in fact a dynamic living system, a network,” she explained.
“GDP measures total economic activity, but does not measure well being. A company could be making profit, but does not pay tax or treat its people better.
“Today the challenge is how do we manage the curve, the tourism tsunami… We need to know how to manage the tsunami. It is the issue of our time. We are simply outpacing the use of resources driven by profit at the expense of other considerations.”
Claiming 2016 saw a visible fundamental shift, tourism leaders now recognise the old business model has damaged the environment and caused a backlash in communities. “We created the system so we can create a new one changing from mindless to mindful,” she told MTF delegates.
Achieving balance and community involvement should be the outcomes. Yet a read of the GMS Tourism Sector Strategy shows expansion will be in excess of 10% a year and if not balanced with other factors could rob the Mekong Region of its core values and ability to deliver a rewarding travel experience.
The report’s authors fail to recommend a rethink in strategy or even to slow progress and evaluate new business models. It delivers the same heavy meal of tourism expansion, massive investments in airports, roads and infrastructure based on assumptions that all is well.
The study has five pillars, or strategic directions, and on the surface some of them address the problems raised by Pollock. If all the projects under the five pillars are implemented, ADB’s loan funding will amount to a massive USD58,710.4 million.
Human resource development leads off with three programmes funded in large by ADB. They feature the introduction of regional skills standards, capacity building for public officials and strengthening tourism enterprise support services. Estimated cost runs at USD164.2 million.
The second pillar improving tourism infrastructure has been at the heart of earlier 10-year ADB funded reports. The latest focuses on improving airports that will bear the brunt of massive increases in tourist arrivals. It will reduce bottlenecks and upgrade secondary airports to take pressure off gateway destinations and attract airline to serve them. Improved road access to secondary destinations will help to take the heat off gateway cities spreading the impact tourism to a wider area.
Improving marine passenger ports on the Mekong River and other waterways will in the long-term make river cruising more convenient and offer a wider choice of boats of varying sizes.
Railway development especially transnational systems are identified. China’s railway project through Laos is a priority, but it will also lead to fast train lines linking Mekong Region to Malaysia and Singapore that the report says is possible the 2020s.
Infrastructure takes the lion share of ADB funding at USD58,140.0 million through to 2025.
The third pillar stands to enhance the visitor experience through development of thematic destination plans, linking them into multi-country routes and experiences. It will facilitate investment in secondary destinations, introduce common tourism standards across the six member countries developed for ASEAN member countries and focus on preventing negative social and environmental impacts. Costs are estimated at USD119.2 million.
Marketing and promotion will support thematic events and travel experience and position the GMS as a must-see destination. It will seek to improve data exchange and market research, while raising awareness for sustainability. The marketing cost is estimated at USD42.0 million.
Finally the fifth pillar will facilitate regional travel through supporting new air service agreements, addressing visa policy gaps and improving border facilities and management. The visa-on-arrival facility will be expanded and the availability of eVisas extended across the region. Introduction of multiple entry visas is also priority, while the almost forgotten single GMS tourist visa gains a mention. ADB loans and grants for facilitating regional travel over the 10 year period are estimated at USD245.0 million.
But can communities live with tourist intrusion? Are there any assurances that culture will remain robust and the travel experience will not degraded by the a massive increase in visitors? The study makes assumptions that should have been challenged. GMS tourism could lose balance. A flood of tourists from China driven by low-cost flights and eventually fast passenger trains could unsettle a sensitive balance to the detriment of communities, prompting a backlash.
Where are we heading in 2017? Thailand’s tourist arrivals will accelerate to reach 34.4 million this year, Vietnam talks optimistically of achieving 13.5 million and Cambodia believes the tourist head count will surpass 5.4 million, based mainly on the appeal of Angkor Wat and emerging beach resorts in the south.
Even if arrivals to the two Chinese provinces, Yunnan and Guang Xi, remain static at 5 million (2015 estimate), Laos regains tempo with 4.8 million and Myanmar recovers to reach 3 million, the GMS region will host 66.9 million tourists this year alone.
The region’s gateway destinations are already straining at the seams and the move to spread visits to secondary destinations is far from successful due to poor airline and road connections.
Perhaps a different business model should have been higher up the report’s agenda? Instead the GMS Tourism Sector Strategy was predictable in its conclusion. There is no space in its pages to explore the hypothesis presented by the MTF’s keynote speaker. ADB has a USD58,710.4 million treasure chest in loans and grants to boost tourism hardware, but will it overheat the tourism economy bringing with it a growth that ultimately is unsustainable and spells disaster?
We needed to hear more about mapping the way forward to a new business model that would benefit communities. In its preamble the report promises a “more equable distribution of international visitors and destination expenditure”. That require a balancing act on a scale unprecedented in the Mekong Region.