MTF: Digress from the digital era for a moment

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CHIANG RAI, 25 June, 2018: Today, Mekong Region tourism officials, tour operators and travel writers are heading for the northeast town of Nakhon Phanom for the annual Mekong Tourism Forum.

If all goes well when the event opens, Tuesday, delegates will be engrossed with digital matters. They are cool, trendy. Keynotes and sidenotes on sharing, social media, Mekong Moments, Mekong Mini Movies, Mist for start ups mainly in digital travel matters encourage overwhelming enthusiasm.  But is at the expense of a few home truths?

Occasionally, a newcomer, or rookie journalist, pops up to disturb the calm of the Mekong moment with a question. It may refer to the elusive single visa, one-stop border checkpoints, or perhaps they point to the hassles of overland self-drive travel, but it always prompts condescending smiles; perhaps a “thank you for that question… now where were we?”

But the old and tired subjects of a non-digital nature need an airing from time to time. Take the case of a single visa for travel around all of the six member countries. It’s been on the agenda from day one without moving forward, which is exactly 21 years since the first Mekong Tourism Forum convened in Bangkok.

Granted Mekong Region countries have eased visa regulations over the glorious 21 years of tourism expansion. Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam should be lauded for their user-friendly eVisas. Myanmar’s eVisa stands out as a leading example of how to deliver a great service. Lao PDR is due to introduce its first eVisas for tourists at the end of this year or by early 2019.

That leaves the two big players of the Mekong Region, Thailand and China, to come to the table with eVisa schemes?  Thailand has been promising one for two years with no progress, while China conveniently ignores the entire subject of easy visas.

No wonder Yunnan province, the closest Chinese province to Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, receives just a trickle of international visitors when they are holidaying in neighbouring countries.

China’s visas are expensive, time wasting to obtain and discourage multiple cross border excursions. To add to the woes of travelling in the Mekong Region the border between China and Myanmar has been closed for at least four years to all international travel.

Even if the border opened, an international traveller in Yunnan province, who wanted to visit Myanmar’s Shan State, would discover they needed two visas; one to get into China in the first place and the other to return once the trip to Myanmar ended.

No one at the Mekong Tourism Forum would wish to upset the Chinese delegation with the tough realities that it should get into the digital era and offer us eVisas. Then it would be clever to allow multiple entries to make discovery of the Mekong Region practical.

The head of the travel industry federation in Chiang Rai province recently recommended the creation of a zone covering Chiang Rai, Myanmar’s Shan state, North Laos and China’s Yunnan province as “an export and trade zone” that would allow visa-free travel between the four countries, limited to the provinces bordering, or close to the Mekong River, to promote trade and tourism.

Yunnan will host the 22nd Mekong Tourism Forum in May 2019. It could be interpreted as a signal that China has not forgotten this region. However, in recent years the two Chinese provinces that need to send delegates to the MTF (Yunnan and Guang Xi) haven’t bothered. They are conspicuous by the their absence.

Perhaps that will change. China needs to come to the Mekong Tourism table and assume a responsible role to ensure sustainable tourism prospers in the Mekong Region. Most of the major challenges facing the region in terms of achieving sustainable tourism require input from China’s tourism policy makers.  Take China out of the Mekong Tourism equation and you are left with a mini-ASEAN.

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