Mekong tourism to legalise

SIHANOUKVILLE, 12 July 2016: The Greater Mekong Sub-region’s tourism office based in Bangkok should gain legal status possibly by the end of this year.

Tourism officials attending the Mekong Tourism Forum, last week, confirmed, the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office would be redefined as an intergovernmental organisation and registered under Thai law.

MTCO celebrated its 10th anniversary during the Mekong Tourism Forum, held in Sihanoukville last week.

inside no 1But over the years GMS stakeholders have failed to agree on how to register the office legally in Thailand so it can become a recognised funding conduit for sponsorships, aid and financial transactions.

The office represents the tourism interests of Cambodia, China (Yunnan and Guang Xi provinces) Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

On the sidelines of the MTF, last week, officials explained that the viable registration model for the office was the Mekong Institute.

Headquartered in Khon Kaen, northeast Thailand, the Mekong Institute is an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) founded 20 years ago by members of the Greater Mekong Sub-region to develop human resources, capacity building programmes and projects related to regional economic cooperation.

Managed by a GMS national and international staff it focus on three core areas; agriculture, trade and investment.

MTCO is a much younger version of cooperation in the GMS that focuses exclusively on tourism.

In the past, members of the GMS Tourism Working Group that also has representation from the Asian Development Bank considered various business models for the office. One involved registering as a non-government organisation and another operating the office under the Pacific Asia Travel Association umbrella.

Now official say the Mekong Institute is providing the business model and assisting with the complicated process of registering the MCTO as an intergovernmental organisation.

It will require officials from the six countries to sign off on every clause and step of the process to make it legal under Thai law. At the earliest, the process could be completed by the end of the year, or drift into the first quarter of 2018.

Asked to comment on progress, MTCO executive director Jens Thraenhart told TTR Weekly, the advantage of being legally registered would be the ability to raise and process funding from both public and private sources.

“Now we have to channel it through a third-party organisation such as Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports or another country member of the TWG,” he said.

inside no 1.1MTCO has been strapped for cash since it was formed in 2006 to carry the promotional flag of the six-country region.

From its inception, the Tourism Working Group members argued that their annual dues, amounting to USD15,000 from each country, should be matched, or even exceeded, by funds from private organisations.

That has never been the case. Early in the peace private sector travel leaders such as Luzi Matzig, who heads Asian Trails, told a MTCO think-tank, that private companies would not support with a single dollar of funding. Ten years later his words still echo in the tiny MTCO office as a reminder that this is government initiative has failed to attract private sector partnerships or participation. It doesn’t help that the Tourism Working Group is a closed shop without a single representative of the private sector at board level.

To add to the financial burden, Thraenhart confirms that the USD15,000 annual grant from each country has remained unchanged for 10 years without a single adjustment to offset annual inflation.

The USD90,000 annual budget has considerably less buying power today during the MTCO’s 10th anniversary than it did in 2006 and remains starved of third-party partnerships or funding.

The Tourism Working Group renewed Thraenhart’s employment contract at a meeting held on the sidelines of the MTF, last week. He gained a unanimous vote from all six countries, despite strained relations with officials at Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

He will head the office for another two years giving him a maximum tenure of four years when he will have to step down.

Relations with officials at the Department of Tourism that comes under Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports have been described as frosty.

Officials openly told TTR Weekly during the MTF that they voted in favour of extending his contract solely out of solidarity with the other country members.

Earlier in the year, DoT officials moved the MTCO office, which has enjoyed free space since it was established 10 years ago to a much smaller space. The department is expanding and understandably needs more space, while the MTCO is a two-person show that can be squeezed into an office that has been jokingly described as a shoebox.

To add insult to injury, one talkative official told this publication, that earlier in the year, the MTCO executive director was ordered “not to travel outside of the country.”

Of course, officials will deny any such instructions, but they said it openly in a cocktail function at the MTF failing to mention it might be off the record.

But for any one who takes Mekong Tourism seriously such ludicrous comments should be a wake up call. If you hire an executive director give him the tools and mandate and descend not into the pit of pettiness. Mekong tourism deserves better from its stakeholders.