CHIANG RAI, 24 April 2019: You would be forgiven for thinking the organisers of the Mekong Tourism Forum are taking a rain check on the 23rd annual edition.
With just 35 days to go to the forum’s scheduled opening on the 28 May, host country China and the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, the show’s owner, appear to be marking time on delivering meaningful information.
Last week, the forum’s website was switching between host servers and as of Monday the website was still returning error messages and entire sections remained empty. By Tuesday the site showed signs of life, but the information was still sketchy. See: https://mekongtourismforum.org/
What we do know is that despite organisational hiccups the MTF will be hosted, 28 to 29 May, in Dali in Yunnan province, China and speakers are expected to pitch their presentations to the theme “Tourism – a driver for cultural heritage preservation and poverty alleviation.”
But as of Tuesday, the Mekong Tourism Forum’s website identified just four speakers; Mei Zhang founder of Wild China, Brian Linden owner of Linden Centre Dali, ADB’s Mekong stalwart Steven Schipani and MTCO executive director Jens Thraenhart.
TTR Weekly posted questions to Thraenhart earlier this week asking if the MTF organisers might be running out of time?
Thraenhart in a candid telephone interview admitted there were organisational challenges that took longer to resolve than for past events.
“We had an early start in September organising the event and presenting a provisional programme to the host committee headed by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism,” Thraenhart explained.
“I was in Kunming last week and we had productive meetings. I feel confident that it will be an interesting event. Concept, speakers, and programming will be approved this week, yet due to the formation of the new Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the process took longer … China gives great importance to MTF, but everything has to be approved at a very high level in Kunming and Beijing.”
The forum this year will adopt a smaller “boutique” format fully funded by China including the conference content on the 28 May and an all-day field trip to the historical village of Xizhou on the 29 May.
Now almost eight months later, the final programme, registration procedures, media accreditation and the speaker line up should roll out for presentation on the forum’s website this week.
Admitting the speaker line up looks thin on the ground the MTCO executive director affirmed that within days another 10 to 15 speakers and panellists would be listed some provided by host country China.
China is underwriting the cost of the entire MTF that includes conference content, lunches, official dinners, transfers a field trip and free registration for up to 250 delegates of which 50% will be from China.
However, the priority is to cut registration no-shows – delegates who register online because it is free and then fail to attend.
“People registered for free, but there was no guarantee they would attend the event,” said Thraenhart who conceded it was a topic that Chinese hosts wanted to tackle and resolve this year.
Thraenhart promises the website’s registration page for delegates will be up and running Wednesday with one small difference from past years. Registration will have two distinct steps.
For starters, delegates will need to register their “intent to attend” by providing primary details by filling out an online form.
The second step to gain confirmed registration status from the host committee will require delegates to deliver copies of five documents to the organisers. They are a paid flight booking itinerary, hotel booking confirmation, copy of the passport page, a tourist visa and a passport-size photo.
Based on the supply of these items, the host committee confirms event registration. There are no registration fees to pay.
However, delegates pay for their own hotel and flights or they can if they wish to ask the host committee to process the hotel bookings at the official hotel Dali International.
Once they are registered they will receive a link to the event’s App that provides all information with updates of the conference programme, airport transfers and details of the 29 May field trip.
As for the logic behind this complicated process, Thraenhart believes delegates who have obtained a visa, paid upfront for their hotel and airfare are very unlikely to no-show.
Following a full conference day (28 May), the focus will shift to Xizhou ancient town on the 29 May with delegates joining a field trip to see how tourism and culture are interlinked in a “living heritage town”.
The field trip programme will share similarities with the 2017 MTF in Luang Prabang when delegates visited cultural attractions in the world heritage town with lunches and presentations hosted at different venues.
A Mekong Food Festival is also planned for the evening in the historical town’s square but it is likely delegates will need to pay for snacks and beverages prepared by local residents. Xizhou is 37 km north of the conference hotel, Dali International Hotel, which stands near the southern shore of Erthai Lake.
Delegates will need to book three nights at the official hotel, which is next to the convention hall venue. To attend the all-day sessions on the 28 May they will need to travel to Dali 27 May and return home on the 30 May at the earliest.
A standard room for three nights at the Dali International Hotel will cost USD362 including breakfast.
All delegates will need to apply for a tourist visa. The MTF host committee will not supply invitational letters confirming attendance at a conference.
China tourist visa fees vary according to nationality, the country where the visa application is lodged and whether you are requesting express service.
As a guideline, US citizens could pay as much as USD140 and other nationalities around USD30 to USD90.
There are no direct flights to Dali from capital cities in the Mekong Region.
The shortest flight time is five hours from Vientiane Laos with a roundtrip fare of USD303 on China Eastern departing 27 May and returning 30 May.
From Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, the China Eastern flight takes from 12 hours on the outbound trip and seven on the return leg with a fare of USD439.
Out of Yangon, Myanmar, China Eastern gets you there in 14 hours and brings you back home in six hours for a roundtrip fare of USD366.
The flight from Hanoi on China Southern takes 17 hours outbound and 13 hours on the return with a fare of USD221.
From Bangkok, China Southern gets you there in 10 hours with a fare of USD246.
All flights to Dali require a change of plane in the airline’s home-base hub in China.
Bangkok-based delegates can fly direct to Kunming on Thai Airways International, AirAsia or China Eastern and then take the high-speed train to Dali a novel experience on the outbound leg, but possibly tiresome on the return leg.
The high-speed train takes two hours to complete the journey instead of six hours previously. There are three classes of travel and 25 departures daily from Kunming’s high-speed train station. A check of the one-way fares showed a second class ticket costs USD21.56, first class USD34.34 and business class USD64.38. https://www.chinatrainguide.com
Roundtrip airfares to Kunming range from USD113 on AirAsia to USD186 on China Eastern and USD248 on Thai Airways.
Even with free registration thrown in by the host country, the out-of-pocket expenses to attend MTF are estimated at between USD700 and USD800.
For more details visit: https://mekongtourismforum.org/