ATF: ASEAN buzz words are busy

HALONG BAY, 21 January 2019:  Three key words were bandied around the 22nd Meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers that was hosted last week during annual deliberations of ASEAN’s 10 member countries.

Listening to the ministers, or counting the repetitive descriptions in the volume of policy statements and directives, gives you key buzz words; sustainable, competitive and inclusive.

In the nearby new exhibition hall that hosted the region’s annual travel mart, companies were haggling and vying for business through to Friday evening demonstrating the fierce commercial competition that exits between private sector groups in the member countries.

Ministers were talking of competitive edge believing ASEAN can muster a “single destination” image on par with Europe. In reality fierce competition at national level dominates and cooperation follows a good distance at the rear.

They are also concerned enough to pepper their speeches, papers and official documents with copious references to “sustainability” in the hope that by talking up this term it will slow down the drift to overcrowding and pollution that threatens destinations across the region.

“Inclusivity” is a reference to ASEAN leaders extending the influence of tourism as well as economic benefits to rural communities rather than concentrating riches on a few major corporations, a sentiment that claims, “tourism is for all”.

These commendable sentiments and objectives have dominated ministerial meeting in ASEAN for decades and are largely ignored by the private sector. In practice tourism development accelerates like a runaway train powered by hard-sell marketing schemes.

In 2018, international tourists to ASEAN rose 10% compared with 8% in the Asia-Pacific region and 7% in the world, while tourism contributed 12.4% of the regional gross domestic product (GDP).

Many experts forecast that the GDP contribution of ASEAN tourism would surge to 15% by 2025. Sustainability is not compatible with that kind of growth rate. Instead it appears that tourism is largely ungovernable as national agendas, budgets and the sheer greed of the industry demand double-digit growth whatever the cost to cultural integrity or the region’s environment.

By Friday evening the ministers and their impressive entourages of paper pushers had vacated the meeting rooms at a five-star hotel in Halong Bay. They quickly made their statements at a staged managed press conference to a body of bored journalists and travel writers and headed home at the close of the 38th ASEAN Tourism Forum. Job done, they could once more move on to the next photo opportunity or talkfest.

Press statements referred to the strategic directions. ASEAN tourism heads pointed to sustainability, embracing inclusivity, while sharpening competitive edge in region that claims to be a single tourism destination.

Host of this year’s forum, Vietnamese Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, Nguyen Ngoc Thien called for NTOs “to foster cooperation to promote the sustainable development and strengthen coordination to improve service quality and further facilitate travel.”

National tourist offices have their copies of the 2016-2025 ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan and a list of four committees that will focus on sustainable and inclusive tourism development and tourism competitiveness, tourism resourcing and monitoring and evaluation, and tourism professional monitoring.

That should keep them busy while the tourism train bullets along without a care to impending disaster.