NAKHON PHANOM, 3 July 2018: Reasons for attending the annual Mekong Tourism Forum were as diverse as the background of the 475 delegates registered.
This year’s Mekong Tourism Forum attracted the highest attendance in the event’s history, understandably because registration was free.
Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports threw a bundle of cash at the event to ensure success. It worked. Even the traditional shirts worn at the innovative seminars hosted at eight villages were gifts from a generous ministry.
One of the delegates, keen to touch base with researchers focusing on community-based tourism, had a clear enough reason for attending.
“We go to events to meet people we know, we network, that is more important that the substance or the programme.”
Others were keen to catch up with travel influencers, or decision makers who could channel tourism to the Mekong Region.
if they were hoping to meet top executives in airlines, hotel groups, or even leading tour operators active in the Mekong region they were disappointed. The no-shows were significant even in the speakers’ domain, which was inexcusable.
Billed as a keynote speaker, AirAsia’s chief commercial officer, Spencer Lee, no-showed as did Ctrip’s international regional general manager Edison Chen.
They were one of the reasons why we attended. They determine how tourism grows. We wanted to hear what they had to say about Mekong tourism. Speaker no-shows are unacceptable and particularly the AirAsia CCO deserves to be flamed for failing to keep his commitment to MTF.
Even tour operators, who actively back Mekong Tourism financially and support community-based project, were otherwise engaged, which seriously compromised the forum’s worth as a platform of engagement. I counted just one major inbound tour operator present, Khiri Travel.
Airlines that are serving the six countries should have fielded delegations and airport operators in each of the countries should have attended to provide important feedback on air connectivity.
Bangkok Airways wasn’t there for the first time in years and its absence was noted. Always considered a Mekong Region pioneer airline has it forgotten its roots?
Major travel and hospitality firms benefit from promotions and the work MTCO does on behalf of the region’s industry, especially building consumer awareness. Perhaps the big successful players think the MTF is for SMEs, the small guys at the bottom of the food chain. But it should be about giving back and ensuring tourism in the region grows sustainably. So where was Accor, IHG and Starwood that gain so much from the Mekong Region?
Fortunately, the villagers came to the rescue, just when delegates were wondering if they would ever find time to snatch a glimpse of what the riverside destination had to offer.
The introduction of thematic workshops hosted in ethnic villages at the Luang Prabang MTF in 2017 created an innovative channel for delegates to learn and engage as well as get out of the meeting hall.
The thematic workshops, this time in eight villages around Nakhon Phanom province, were lifesavers. Without them the event would have struggled possibly wobbled into obscurity.
The workshops tackle the age-old problem of delegates seeing the inside of a conference hall, the interior of a bus and their hotel room, while missing out entirely on the destination they are visiting.
Delegates joined trips to eight villages noted for various activities from organic farming and heritage to adventure and religious tourism.
The sessions helped to resolve the destination’s lack of conference and meeting space beyond the university’s convention hall. There’s not a single hotel in town that has adequate meeting space for groups of 50 to 100 delegates.
But more importantly it gave villagers a chance to showcase the community-based tourism that supplements their living.
Around 40 delegates travelled in a convoy to Tha Kalerng village around 70 km from town for the Organic Tourism Workshop. Villagers wearing traditional costumes, representative of their ethnic community greeted delegates and then they proudly hosted a lunch party; lots of Isan dishes and traditional country music and dance, followed by a presentation on the value of organic tourism.
It turned out to be the highlight of the week’s forum so much so some delegates were quick to point out to the organisers that it should have been slotted into the opening day’s activities as a curtain raiser to allow networking and set the stage for the rest of the week’s programme.
Did the villagers steal the show? Yes, through their enthusiastic hospitality, while the outdoor venue was the stage for the most meaningful presentations, particularly the practical and informative presentation on organic tourism, a subject that every major hotel group in the region should have listened to and heeded.