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The 10 Big Tourism Issues That Need to be Addressed in the Greater Mekong Region

Ahead of the Mekong Tourism Forum on 27-28 May 2011 in Laos, Khiri Travel asked its country managers in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to identify the unnecessary obstacles to growth currently impacting tourism across the Greater Mekong Region.


They identified 10 issues ranging from practical operational matters to marketing, branding and political concerns. Khiri Travel believes that for sustainable growth in tourism, the following ten issues need to be addressed:


1. Political stability in Thailand and an end to the Thai-Khmer border conflict. Because Indochina destinations depend so heavily on Thailand as a gateway, airport closures and city centre protests in Bangkok adversely impact the whole region. When Thailand is stable and working, the whole Greater Mekong Region benefits. Let’s hope for stability before and after Thailand’s general election on 3 July 2011.


2. Easier visa arrangements. Getting multiple visas is a big hassle. Automatic 30-day visas on arrival would drive growth immensely. Thailand figured this out a long time ago. If we must have visas, one visa for the whole ASEAN region would be a viable 2nd option. Currently, multi-destination holidays need multiple visas. With no visas, or one “ASEAN Schengen” visa, demand for multi-destination travel would increase notably.


3. Better airport management at Suvarnabhumi. With a population of 10 million and a strategic geographic location, Bangkok’s role as an aviation hub should be untouchable. However, arriving aircraft are often not assigned gates. Passengers have to climb on buses and go up and down stairs. Long immigration queues and assorted scams at Suvarnabhumi International Airport also need to be addressed. The Airports Authority of Thailand says it wants Suvarnabhumi to make the top five in the Skytrax World Airport Awards. It’s currently number 13.


4. An end to aviation protectionism. This is particularly noticeable in Koh Samui and Siem Reap where Bangkok Airways has excessive market share. In these destinations competition is marginalized, creating, in effect, a cartel that keeps ticket prices high and tourism growth slow.


5. Greater respect for green issues in rural areas. Don’t build shoulder-to-shoulder hotels on every beach in Thailand. Respect national park status. The Mekong River region is under severe threat. The Xayaboury dam project is in the planning stage. There are also plans to mine the Bolaven Plateau is southern Laos for bauxite. Natural primary forests such as the Nam Ha National Protected Area in Laos (an eco-adventure site) are being earmarked for rubber tree plantations. Conversely, nature conservation is a boon for tourism. It would safeguard the Mekong region’s rich biodiversity and help prevent disasters such as mudslides and flooding due to logging and encroachment on watersheds.


6. Greater respect for green issues in urban areas. How wonderful cities such as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City would be with dedicated pedestrian zones, reduced noise and particle pollution from vehicles. It’s not just tourism that would benefit, the population would too. More green means less stress and a higher quality of life. The authorities should stop developing every square metre and leave some space for public enjoyment. San Francisco, New York and Singapore have population pressures, but respect green needs. Tourists and residents love green spaces in urban areas.


7. Better infrastructure. Urban tourism based on short breaks for shopping, dining, nightlife and heritage is growing rapidly. Bangkok made a quantum leap as a destination with the opening of its BTS skytrain and MRT underground trains. Well thought-through infrastructure enhances the tourism experience and the quality of life of residents. Build it and they will come. But no white elephants please – such as the BRT bus system in Bangkok.


8. Bold branding. Destination campaigns need to be refreshed. Sadly – and depending on who you ask – “Amazing Thailand” is now associated with “amazing” political problems as much as “amazing” beaches, food or service. Desperately, Vietnam has opened the creation of its national identity slogan to public contest. The whole process needs to be thought through carefully. A successful brand such as South Africa’s “It’s Possible” or Egypt’s “Where It All Begins,” needs to capture the imagination of a wide range of people, not just tourists.


9. Much less red tape. Try investing in a hotel or tour operation in Indochina and you’ll soon be embroiled in an intractable Gordian knot of business regulations, government approvals, licensing contradictions, kick-backs and delays. If national development through tourism is the goal, cut the tape, simplify and make transparent.


10. More trust. The governments of Greater Mekong Region need to start thinking regionally and not nationally. A commitment to regional tourism objectives will attract tourists and create wealth faster than any national agenda. The whole of ASEAN is heading towards a large degree of integration in 2015. It would be wonderful if the Greater Mekong Region got there first.

Willem Niemeijer is Group CEO & Founder Khiri Travel.


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