Asean tourism: Turning promise into reality

Flags of Asean members displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Building Complex in Brunei.
Flags of Asean members displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Building Complex in Brunei. ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

IN THE march towards an Asean Community in 2015, South-east Asian governments and national tourism organisations are hoping to build on the recent double-digit growth in traveller numbers.

Asean tourism ministers are also seeking to create a greater sense of community among Asean's 10 disparate member states to complement increasingly ubiquitous country-branding efforts, ranging from "Amazing Thailand" to "Wonderful Indonesia".

Asean governments, however, need to do more than talk. They must work to maintain and improve the very destinations that they seek to promote, and better assist the people they seek to help. Governments also must move beyond visitor numbers and instead pursue more meaningful, though admittedly, more difficult measures to gauge the success of tourism investments and campaigns.

This could include tracking local job creation and environmental impacts, as well as gauging how much of the tourist dollar actually stays in the country and in local communities. Money spent on tourism marketing campaigns - no matter how sophisticated or creative - must also be complemented by on-the-ground investment in communities and capacity building if they are to be sustainable.

Indeed, South-east Asian governments and industry stakeholders - in consultation with communities and civil society - must come together to address three critical challenges.

These are inadequate infrastructure, growing inequality and a lack of regional cooperation.

Failure to do so may well lead to increasingly negative perceptions. More and more, visitors will be faced with a growing disconnect between the sophisticated promotional campaigns and the reality they find on the ground - and in the air and waters - of the Asean countries they visit.

First, inadequate infrastructure. Across large parts of South-east Asia, basic infrastructure is being overwhelmed by population growth. Alternatively, it is simply non-existent, as in the case of electricity in large parts of Myanmar and Cambodia.

South-east Asian governments must continue their investments in basic infrastructure, including power supply, solid waste management and wastewater treatment. Crucially, governments must also strengthen engagement and partnership with the private sector and civil society to ensure community support as well as make funds available for maintenance, upkeep and future investment.

My recent return to Indonesia's showcase resort island of Bali revealed a case in point. There, I found the people were not just talking about the new airport terminal and tollway built in part for Apec and Asean meetings. They were also talking, quite literally, about trash.

Indeed, Bali lacks the infrastructure to handle the growing amount of trash caused by tourists and residents. Some of Bali's most famous beaches, including Kuta and Legian, from January to March are blanketed with garbage - washed ashore perhaps from elsewhere on the island or from Java to the west with the strong winds and currents that mark the annual monsoon season. 

 Second, growing inequality. While seeking to creatively brand destinations and capture visitors with catchy slogans - "Myanmar: Join the Journey" may well be the latest - South-east Asian tourism authorities need to think through how best to do so when unchecked economic development and growing inequality often threaten the very attractions that bring in travellers. These include pristine beaches, ancient monuments or tropical rainforests.

That long-term threat to tourism is made all the more real when uneven development and persistent inequalities contribute to violent protests.

Look no further than Bangkok - the world's No. 1 travel destination, as measured by MasterCard's 2013 Global Destination Cities Index, which looked at international overnight stays. Today, Thailand's capital has garbage-clogged sewers and broken sidewalks, as well as majestic Buddhist temples and gleaming skyscrapers. It also remains at the heart of domestic political battles that have occasionally turned violent, leaving at least 20 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent months.

And perhaps not coincidentally, this increasingly divided country - despite the ongoing multi-million dollar "Amazing Thailand" tourism campaign - is also one of the most unequal nations in Asia when ranked by the Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

Thailand's poorest farmers, however, are far from alone in an Asia-Pacific region that still accounts for two-thirds of the world's poor.

Third, lack of regional cooperation. Despite all the rhetoric of camaraderie, visa-free access and increased connectivity, South-east Asian common ground quickly vanishes when it comes to national interests and the battle for investment. Recent examples include territorial disputes between Thailand and Cambodia surrounding the centuries-old Preah Vihear temple and continued tensions between the Philippines and Malaysia over the state of Sabah.

The reluctance so far of Indonesia to join in an open-skies agreement with its Asean counterparts is yet another example where domestic concerns trump any notion of Asean solidarity.

Still, Asean's desire to build a sense of community beyond borders to the benefit of visitors and the people and places they visit is on target. Travellers to developing South-east Asia may well grow used to trash on its beaches, blackouts and water shortages, and even once blue skies filled with smoke or smog. But there is still much work to be done by governments and policymakers if plans to build and sustain an even larger regional tourism industry are to succeed.

Cleaning up Bali's beaches with rakes and wheelbarrows, as is now being done, is a short-term solution to the complaints of travellers. Addressing infrastructure needs and ensuring equality of opportunity and hope to all the region's citizens are the more difficult challenges.

But it will be time and money well spent as South-east Asia continues to gear up for the Asean Community.


The writer, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group.


S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs. Read more S.E.A View pieces online at straitstimes.com/news/opinion