BANGKOK • When Thailand launched its landmark "Amazing Thailand" tourism campaign in 1998, the country was contending with the very real aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, which saw the devaluation of its currency and economic contagion across South-east Asia and to other countries in the region such as South Korea.
What a difference 20 years makes.
Bangkok is now a top-ranked destination city by international overnight visitor arrivals, according to the sixth annual MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index published last September. Asian cities, including three from Asean, now make up half of the global top 10 cities: Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Seoul, according to the ranking, and seven of the top 10 fastest-growing destination cities: Osaka, Chengdu, Colombo, Tokyo, Taipei, Xi'an and Xiamen.
Today, as Thailand and much of Asia welcome more and more visitors, the region's leaders and policymakers must take steps towards a more sustainable tourism industry and accelerate supporting infrastructure. Ensuring tourism is a sustainable driver of economic growth will require much more than sustained support for even the best marketing campaigns.
Tourists must also do their part, by becoming "noble travellers", if you will, through better understanding of the economic and environmental impact of their travel dollars spent - whether positive or negative - and adjusting their spending accordingly. That thought struck me when I read that this year, 40,642kg of garbage had been collected in a single day in Bali's Biggest Beach Clean-up campaign. Some 12,000 volunteers drawn from local and international communities and businesses took part in cleaning up 55 sites along the island's coastline.
And therein lies a critical challenge for tourism authorities in South-east Asia and around the region. As they seek to creatively brand destinations and capture visitors with catchy slogans - "Wonderful Indonesia" and "Malaysia, Truly Asia" are just two examples - they need to address the challenge of unchecked economic development threatening the long-term sustainability of the very attractions that draw visitors. How can the authorities ensure that taglines such as "Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder" or "It's More Fun in the Philippines" remain credible when geopolitics and unrest intervene.
For many South-east Asian nations, tourism is big business and destinations - both entire countries and individual cities - are battling for their share of the lucrative travellers' dollar. In Thailand - the "Land of Smiles" - last year, the travel and tourism sector contributed US$36.7 billion (S$50.8 billion) to the Thai economy, equivalent to 9.2 per cent of total gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Indirectly, the sector's contribution to Thailand's GDP was even larger, comprising an estimated US$82.5 billion, or 20.6 per cent of the national total last year. Thailand, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, is projected to have the world's 10th fastest-growing tourism sector over the coming decade, averaging annual growth of 6.7 per cent.
Understandably, governments across South-east Asia and around the world are investing in travel and tourism, and in "country branding" campaigns. The promotions and publicity seem to be working, with large numbers of international visitors - including growing numbers of Chinese tourists - drawn to Bangkok and other Asian cities. Selfie-stick- and umbrella-wielding travellers from and to Asia are on the move. As measured by the MasterCard index cited above, travellers ranked Bangkok the No. 1 destination, followed by London, Paris, Singapore and New York.
But visitors need to also bear in mind the region's economic realities. According to the Asian Development Bank's 2016 key indicators, approximately 1.2 billion people in Asia and the Pacific live below the poverty line of US$3.10 (2011 purchasing power parity or PPP) a day. About 1.5 billion lack access to proper sanitation, 330 million still live on less than US$1.90 a day, and roughly 300 million people live without safe drinking water.
Disparities in income may well be less visible than trash on a beach, inadequate plumbing or smog-filled skies. But as poverty in the region has decreased, inequality has often widened.
In the short term, individual cities may move up or down the MasterCard index and other annual rankings. But in the long term, government and tourism officials need to incorporate a healthy dose of accountability in their spending as they brand and market their own parts of Asia to the world.
Asia's governments must address inequality of opportunity, which can undercut the entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises critical to any nation's tourism industry in the long run. This should include open and transparent bidding for development opportunities, putting in place clear land titling and investment rules and regulations, and increasing competition in aviation and hospitality.
Community-based tourism projects that give local residents a voice on the type of tourism projects to be planned for their communities can also help build sustainability. Local players can have some of the best insights into how projects should be managed, and how to ensure a fair share of profits go back to the community.
Travel and tourism campaigns must be research-based and results-driven, and more than vanity projects for officials seeking industry dollars from hoteliers and industry members who are unable to say no.
In the end, what is needed is a rethink. The marketing of Asia's diversity of destinations can both better reflect today's realities and also be leveraged to tackle the region's very real inequalities. Twenty years after the Asian financial crisis, a recovered Asia and Pacific region should now do more to ensure tourism's growing economic benefits extend more broadly. Sceptical policymakers and business leaders may well be surprised to find the result is both sustained growth and more sustainable tourism.
•The writer, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.
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