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How to preserve Mekong’s magical appeal?

Luc Citrinot, eTN  May 30, 2011

PAKSE (eTN) - Tourism belongs to one of the most successful stories which occurred in the Mekong region over the last 15 years. The recent Mekong Tourism Forum hosted in Pakse confirmed the rising interest for this part of Asia. Over 250 participants came to the Southern Laotian city. “It is a significant number of participants as Pakse is not always that easy to reach compared to larger cities. But we believe that one of our tasks at the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) is to promote also secondary destinations,” said Mason Florence, Executive Director for the MTCO.

Success stories are generally best understood through benchmarks and numbers. According to Christine Jacquemin, Project Coordinator at MTCO, total arrivals to the 6 countries and provinces forming the Greater Mekong Subregion grew by 112.9% between 2000 and 2010 reaching last year 29.04 million compared to 13.64 million a decade ago. While Europe remains constant with its market share growing only slightly from 20.98% to 22% over the decade, a very positive evolution is the rising importance of local markets. Southeast Asia represents now 31.5% of all arrivals (9.15 million in 2010) compared to a share of 23.9% in 2000 (4.79 million). The most disappointing market remains Northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea). Despite the fact that total arrivals rose from 4.79 million to 7.66 million for the period 2000-2010, Northeast Asia’s market share declined significantly from 35% to 26%. The relatively weak number of flights –especially to countries such as Cambodia, Laos, or Myanmar - could be an explanation. Southeast Asia is by contrary benefiting from a large number of new flights by low-fare carriers out of Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Presenting the evolution of the Mekong region over the last 15 years, Robert Hecker, Chairman of Horwath HTL, highlighted the fact that some of the recommendations made in 1997 have since been implemented. “Lack of access has mostly been removed as new roads, bridges, air links developed over the last 15 years facilitating cross-borders tours with Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos leading the way in that field. However, visa hurdles remain still an issue especially for some countries,” he explained to his audience. The vision of a single GMS visa has been discussed for 15 years, but all the speakers at the Mekong Tourism Forum now agree that it will take a long time to become a reality - if it even happens one day. “Granting a special visa permit for designated tourism circuits could still be implemented,” said Mr. Hecker. It could, in fact, be an acceptable solution for countries with rigid visa procedures such as China (for Yunnan) or Vietnam. “Relaxing entry conditions to all Mekong countries would give a major boost to the GMS,” estimated Mr. Hecker.

Opening fully the Mekong region to all tourists would it not be detrimental to the quality of the destination as it would bear the risk to see hordes of travelers flooding in? “Governments in the region face now this daunting question: are we just looking at higher numbers, or are we looking for higher yield? Quality of tourism is vital for the region as it attracts travelers for its unique and authentic experience,” said Bill Calderwood, PATA Interim CEO.

Numbers do not necessarily contribute that much to local people. There is a risk of destroying the social fabric or bringing undesirable types of travelers. “Veng Vien, a city between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, used to be a paradise ten years ago. It is now better known as a place where a crowd of younger and younger travelers come to look for booze and drugs,” described a hotelier of the region and specialist of Laos. Destinations such as Siem Reap and also Luang Prabang are now suffering from over-commercialization and are rapidly loosing their appeal to more distinctive higher-spending travelers.

According to Christine Jacquemin, big numbers do not necessarily also benefit locals. “There is a real discrepancy between growth in arrivals and revenues and the growth in direct employment in travel and tourism. For example, Cambodia recorded a growth of 613% in total arrivals between 2000 and 2010 of 318% in total revenues but only of 80% in total direct employment. In Thailand, while tourism and revenues grew respectively by 68% and 119%, total direct employment was only up by 3%,” she explained.

The region is certainly now confronted to its most difficult task: channeling responsible, quality tourism through proper planning in its development. “Focus must now be on planned/controlled access as yield and economic targets must become critical. Benchmarks to this policy could be Bhutan – even if entrance restrictions can be judged as excessive - or New Zealand,” indicated Robert Hecker. The Mekong region is definitely entering its second phase of development. And it will have to learn to be more assertive about investments pouring within its borders if it wants to remain a fascinating magnet to new generations of travelers.

How to preserve Mekong’s magical appeal?
The Mekong River along Champassak village / Photo by Luc Citrinot

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