BANGKOK, 11 June 2018: The Mekong Region’s tourism scorecards showed positive and stable growth in tourist arrivals over the last four years, but new challenges have emerged for the region.
MTCO executive director, Jens Thraenhart, in an interview with TTR Weekly at the weekend, identified the core challenges as over-tourism, the need to disperse tourists to secondary destinations and developing ‘human capital.’
Thraenhart is almost out of contract after heading the region’s tourism office for four years starting in July 2014 – two contracts of two years each under his belt with the last one due to expire 30 June.
While recognising a solid overall tourism performance, Thraenhart said member countries must deal with the challenge of dispersing tourists from major gateways to secondary destinations.
“In general there is lots of growth, all the Mekong countries are doing well, but the problems are over-tourism and visitor dispersion; not all the countries have figured it out… they have capacity issues.”
According to MTCO figures the region attracted almost 60 million visitors in 2016. Thailand led with 32.5 followed by Vietnam with 10 million visits. Just two provinces in China were included in the tally (Yunnan and Guang Xi) with 6 million, Cambodia with 5 million, Laos 4.3 million Myanmar and Laos 2.9 million.
The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office is governed by a tourism working group representing member countries; Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
Thraenhart is convinced that to answer the threat of over-tourism the region must concentrate on dispersing visitors to secondary destinations across the Mekong Region.
“Dispersing tourism is working on a national level to some extent, but the challenge is do it regionally. There are bottlenecks, more needs to be done to disperse tourists to secondary destination to relieve pressure on gateway cities.”
Over 250 million airline passengers made trips to cities in the Mekong Region in 2016 with 30 of the 100 airports in the region handling international flights.
But still the vast majority of visitors flock to just a few iconic destinations such as Siem Reap, Luang Prabang and capital cities of the Mekong region.
Thraenhart argues that tour operators need to be encouraged to combine secondary destinations in new itineraries that major on travel experiences that benefit local communities.
“The easy sell is a visit to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap and combine it with other popular destinations in the Mekong Region… a harder task is to offer experiences that link lesser known destinations”, he explained.
The MTCO executive director noted that the region’s core development objectives remain focused on creating inclusive tourism, improving tourism infrastructure and air connectivity, while easing overland travel bottlenecks at border checkpoints.
“Our objectives haven’t changed… we are still committed to the principles of inclusive growth and poverty alleviation.”
But the challenge of over-tourism, a word coined in the last few years to describe overcrowding at tourist attractions and the social ills tourism can inflict on local communities, is now a real threat across the Mekong Region.
Thailand attracting 35 million tourists (2017) at one end of the scale and Myanmar slightly less than 3 million visitors a year at the other, but both face the threat of over-tourism.
“All countries need to figure out how to deal with it,” Thraenhart warned. “Of course, development will continue … to say that the tourism development phase in the Mekong Region has run its course would be a stretch.”
But he calls for balance recognising that low-cost airlines are opening up new routes in the region, the challenge is figuring out how to offer genuine experience-based options in secondary destinations.
Looking forward, Thraenhart believes the Mekong Region biggest challenge is to create a balance and manage growth to reverse over-tourism.
To achieve that balance regional basis tourism stakeholders need to focus more on high yield markets, pursue segmentation and prevent money leakage to ensure tourism earnings stay in the host country.
Tourism figures may look good on paper, but there is plenty of evidence to show that foreign tour operators repatriate revenue, invest in their own hotels and control sightseeing to syphon off revenue that should have gone to local communities.
Finding talent and developing human capital in the Mekong Region is another major issue that was not apparent a decade earlier.
“If we fail to concentrate on improving human capital we will face other damaging issues. Hotel companies will not invest in the region if there is a shortage of talent… Investment will go elsewhere.”
He calls for a change in mindset at industry level, a commitment by investors to the principles of sustainable tourism.
“It should involve all stakeholders in tourism, we have to encourage a change of mindset on engagement to adopt responsible tourism and extend the campaign to travel consumers.”
Scorecard: Eight projects
During his four years at MTCO the following projects have been launched that create private-public platforms for sharing and collaboration in the B2B or B2C travel sectors.
Destination Mekong was created in 2017 to promote the Mekong region, comprising of Cambodia, PR China (Provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan), Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan (PRC) as a single tourism destination to stimulate responsible and sustainable development and investment, and drive inclusive growth.
Endorsed by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, and aligned with the mandate of the regional collaborative tourism framework of the six member governments of the Greater Mekong Subregion, Destination Mekong executes targeted projects and initiatives via a pubic-private partnership investment structure, led by UNWTO Affiliate Member Chameleon Strategies. The following are the main projects of Destination Mekong.
This is Destination Mekong’s flagship initiative, a collaborative social commerce platform, enabling any organisation related to the visitor economy in the GMS to share a Mekong travel experience.
It allows travellers and travel enterprises to share 60 second videos. In less than a year it mini movies on the platform generated 300 shares and around 6 million views.
Essentially a mini film festival i celebrates the many faces and experiences of the Greater Mekong Subregion and promotes the region as a single tourist destination.
An annual regional tourism marketing campaign this is the first complete year since it was launched at MTF June 2017.
The festival targets amateur and professional movie makers and create a large amount of content for the region with promotions and screenings internationally.
The Mekong Minis campaign is powered by Mekong Moments at www.MekongMoments.com/Minis [or] www.MekongMinis.com
A knowledge platform it offer insights and trends to travel and tourism professionals in the GMS.
A public-private partnership that delivers valuable industry intelligence on specific and relevant topics, this Destination Mekong initiative is published for the industry on behalf of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) and National Tourism Organisations of the six government of the Greater Mekong Subregion
Mekong Innovative Startups in Tourism
MIST is a not-for-profit tourism accelerator program organized by Destination Mekong and the Mekong Business Initiative. It is sponsored by the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Australia and supported by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office. MIST turns innovative tourism ideas into sustainable businesses.
MIST has two tracks. The MIST Startup Accelerator focuses on early-stage tourism startups already based in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar or Vietnam. The MIST Market Access Accelerator welcomes mature businesses based anywhere in the world that wish to expand into the Mekong.
EXPERIENCE MEKONG COLLECTION
For responsible travel operators, the “Experience Mekong Collection” showcases responsible and sustainable travel experiences in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The Mekong Tourism Advisory Group (MeTAG), made up of tourism professionals active in responsible tourism in the GMS endorses all nominations. Nominations of \responsible travel experiences in the GMS are welcomed. Nominations/Applications as well as listings are free.
EXPERIENCE MEKONG SHOWCASE
Responsibility seeks to minimize negative economic, environmental and social impacts and generate greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improve working conditions and access to the industry. Lots of operators and entrepreneurs are operating innovative businesses that give back to the local community on one hand, and enhance the travel experience in the region by providing authentic experiences.
The Mekong Region has powerful stories to tell – from residents that work in travel and tourism; from businesses that deliver engaging experiences; and from travellers themselves sharing their experiences.
Mekong Stories is all about finding and telling these stories to inspire people to visit the Mekong Region.
The vision for Mekong Stories is to create a highly-visual print magazine, accompanied by an online magazine with video content bringing the stories to life.