CHIANG RAI, 15 February 2019: Mekong region destinations are reaping substantial tourism gains, while setting ambitious targets as they look further down track.
Thailand leads neighbours Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, topping 38.27 million visits in 2018 and predicting it will pass the 40 million mark this year.
While Thailand, a global star in the tourism rankings, considers measures to apply the brakes its neighbours remain confident they still have plenty of room to grow.
Vietnam’s tourism surges on the crest of new airline services, while Cambodia optimistically looks to new airports to cater to double-digit growth at two gateway destinations Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Laos and Myanmar, struggling with seesaw results in recent years, are now confidently looking to China to drive growth and end seasonal swings.
Vietnam has set an ambitious 18 million target for tourist arrivals in 2019 against the backdrop of a 15.49 million performance in 2018 that represented a growth of 19.9%.
Certain markets in Northeast Asia remain top priorities such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, but more promotions are expected to drive growth from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In 2018, visits from Asia increased by 23.7% to reach 12.1 million. China represented 4.96 million visits, up 23.9%, while South Korean visitors increased by 44.3% to reach 3.48 million.
Visitors from Europe reached 2.1 million, up 8.1% and North America 903,800, up 10.6%.
According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), foreign visitors on an average spend USD900 on a trip to Vietnam, compared to USD1,105 spent in Singapore, USD1,109 in Indonesia and USD1,565 in Thailand.
Low-cost airlines are driving growth by adding more direct flights to secondary destinations such as Danang, Cam Ranh and Phu Quoc. Increasing airline access will continue to be a priority as start-up Bamboo Airlines establishes a domestic network followed by direct flights from cities in East Asia.
But the industry is calling for more direct flights on long-haul routes to Europe, India and ultimately to establish flights to North America, namely San Francisco and Los Angeles on the US west coast.
2018 gave Cambodia the third highest improvement in tourist arrivals among the 10 countries of ASEAN at 11% trailing Vietnam (+19.9%) and Indonesia (11.6%).
That gave Cambodia a respectable 6.2 million visits well ahead of Laos and Myanmar and up from 5.60 million in 2017.
Chinese tourists continue to top the nationality chart with 1.9 million visits, up 70%, according to a report released by Tourism Minister Thong Khon last month.
The minister forecasts that by 2020 the country will welcome 3 million Chinese tourists, while overall visits will hit the 7 million mark.
The long-term target is to attract 12 million visits by 2025, although experts caution that the target is ambitious, suggesting 9 million would be more achievable.
Optimism is based on new airports, or expansion at existing ones, in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
There are plans to builds new airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and continue the expansion of the airport at Sihanoukville.
Phnom Penh’s new airport sited in Takhmao city, Kandal province, and some 30 km southeast of Phnom Penh will be funded by Chinese loans and will cost around USD1.5 billion to build.
Another airport will be built in Siem Reap’s Sot Nikum district with an investment of USD900 million and with a 55-year contract under Angkor Air International Investment Co Ltd, a Kunming-based company in Yunnan province, China.
Laos tourism is back on the road to recovery with 2018 registering 4.1 million tourists arrivals up 8.1% on the previous year.
After two years of sluggish performances, tourism officials claim both domestic and international travel, generated USD755 million in revenue in 2018.
Tourist arrivals peaked in 2015 with 4.68 million, an increase of 13%, but the nation lost ground in 2016 reporting 4.23 million, down 10% and that decline continued in 2017 with 3.86 million arrivals, down 8.23%.
Government officials credited the return to positive performance to easier visas rules including visa-free travel for some nationalities and the surge in travel from China.
In 2018 for visitors from four countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway and Kuwait – enjoyed a visa-free stays.
But officials admit more needs to be done especially to improve tourism sites in Laos, upgrade roads so they are passable year-round and streamline entry formalities.
The industry has to tackle pricing issues, deliver quality services and ensure travellers are not overcharged.
The country forecasts tourist arrivals could reach 4.5 million this year, mainly on the back of more promotions in Mainland China that could generate around 1 million visits. This year 800,000 Chinese visited Laos an increase of 26%.
Myanmar saw tourists arrivals grow by a conservative 3.15% in 2018 registering 3.55 million according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
In 2017 the country welcomed 3.44 million visitors with earnings of USD1.9 billion.
In recent years, the country has suffered declines in visits from the EU and North American countries due to the political situations.
Countering that, visits from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand continued to increase.
China topped the list with 297,400, followed by Thailand with 291,231, Japan with 104,376, US with 65,057, Korea with 63,911, Singapore with 58,657, Vietnam with 53,329, Malaysia with 47,632, India with 43,281, France with 43,218 and the UK with 46,609.
Of 14 regions and states, Yangon, Mandalay and Shan receive the highest tourist arrivals.
Myanmar received 4.6 million in 2015, 2.91 million in 2016 and 3.44 million in 2017.
Overall the picture going forward remains murky. Trade associations warn that of the 70,000-hotel room inventory in the country half of the rooms remain empty.
China tours maybe propping up tourism figures, but tourism leaders acknowledge the arrival of the infamous zero-dollar tours, crafted by Chinese tour operators to keep revenue in their own pockets will be a major issue to address. Volume is there but without financial value for the local tourism trade.
So far, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has not released details of tourism revenue earned in 2018, although based on the declines in arrivals from Europe and the US it is not likely to record gains