It’s Time for Tourism in ASEAN to Grow Up

The World Economic Forum East Asia debate on tourism will take place in Bangkok on May 31. The deliberations will tell us how serious the tourism industry in the Mekong region and Asean is about becoming more professional, integrating and growing up a bit.

A live televised TV debate entitled “Driving Growth Through Travel and Tourism” will take place 1045-1200 (Bangkok time) on Thursday May 31. The sub-theme of the debate is “What is the role of the travel and tourism industry in Asean integration?”

In the debate, some of the best minds in travel and tourism will address specific challenges such as creating jobs and growth opportunities, innovation and technology in tourism, learning from success stories in the region and enhancing competitiveness.

All well and good. But as an operator of innovative tours in Thailand and the Mekong region for 18 years, I say it’s time for the tourism industry in Asean to grow up.

The industry is like a young teenager who has done well at primary school (over 80.5 million arrivals across 10 Asean countries in 2011 isn’t bad). But does he now have the vision, willpower and dedication to become more skilled, innovative, disciplined and standards based?

That, after all, is the vision proffered by the much touted (but little understood) goal of Asean economic cooperation (AEC), due in the tourism service sector by 2015.

So my message to Asean travel and tourism leaders visiting the World Economic Forum in Bangkok is: “Quit beating about the bush!” From my perspective at the daily coalface of the tourism industry I want the political leaders of the region to knuckle down and implement five changes that will create growth, job opportunities and social inclusion. Specifically:

1. Get rid of tourism visa applications. Instead, start issuing 30-day automatic tourism visas on arrival to Asean residents and a range of other markets. If you want growth, that will do the trick. If you want Asean to be competitive, be brave and just do it. It’s no surprise that the three most successful destinations in Asean – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – have had tourism passes on arrival for years. Eliminate redundant administrative clutter in the tourism space and tourists will come. More jobs will be created.

2. Incentivize growth away from existing crowded tourism hubs. Extend better finance arrangements to SMEs in upcountry areas – and use partners such as NTOs, credit card companies and low cost carriers (with their powerful online marketing channels) to package and promote them. The industry has a moral responsibility to embrace the huge amount of local people living beyond well worn and overbuilt tourism hubs.

3. Embrace cross-border land tourism, both self drive and bus tours. Try and drive your own car between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is impossible. You are axle deep in restrictions before you can say “Mekong.” Only Thailand and Laos accept foreign driving permits. Asean countries should mutually recognize each other’s licences. Workable cross-border insurance for car owners self driving should be facilitated. On group tours, we should have, for example, Bangkok residents welcoming Cambodian buses with Cambodian tourists and Thais travelling by bus through Laos to Vietnam. Look how important cross-border land tourism is to France, Germany and Italy. That’s the model.

4. Make tourism curriculums meet the needs of modern industry. Subjects taught in tourism colleges are too broad. There’s little practical training or hands-on experience. For example, language training in Thailand and Vietnam is still poor. There needs to be better quality control, standardisation and certification of tourism institutions. Singapore is already doing a lot of good work in this area.

5. Halt back-sliding on Asean tourism integration. For example, even after 2015, one Asean country will limit foreign Asean nationals’ ownership of hotels to three-star properties and above. It is also limiting geographic areas where foreign equity participation can reach 100%. Sadly, strict work permit conditions will remain after 2015. For example, Filipino front office staff or Malaysian hotel reservation operators won’t be able to simply up sticks and move to Thailand or Singapore and ply their tourism skills there. They’ll have to apply for a work permit – and strict conditions will remain.

The tourism industry should see Asean integration as an opportunity, not a threat. It is an opportunity to export your tourism services and qualities. For example, Singaporeans should export their policy and procedure training. Thais should export their service ethic. Opportunities far outweigh the threats.

Our good looking, charming and thoughtful Asean student (aka the tourism industry) has the world at her feet. With strategic and technical skills training and a commitment to embrace the new, professionalise and standardise training, her potential is huge.

Intra-Asean cooperation in tourism must be nurtured. As we’ve seen with Myanmar, new thinking creates massive opportunities. Tourism companies like Khiri Travel are in the vanguard. We will do what we can to embrace Asean economic cooperation and create local jobs through responsible tourism.

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