Passionate debate around marketing and investment strategies for a sustainable development of the Mekong Region: the four-day format of the Mekong Tourism Forum 2015 in Da Nang in Viet Nam, 15-19 June, gave insights into initiatives to assure a sustainable development of the Mekong region. While most prospects look promising, both public and private sectors are increasingly looking at preserving the authenticity of the Greater Mekong Sub-region to help nurture and preserve its appeal for visitors.
“Unlocking the Potential of the GMS via Innovative Partnerships,” the latest edition of the Mekong Tourism Forum hosted by the city of Da Nang in Central Viet Nam attracted some of the best specialists of the region. They gathered to debate the future of tourism in the Mekong region. The four-day event included a marketing workshop, an investment summit, a social media boot camp, and the main symposium.
Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) said: “The new format aimed to bring experts together to collaborate in producing engaging sessions to ensure a sustainable growth and responsible development of the Greater Mekong Subregion.”
During the forum, there was good news on the visa front. In his welcome address at the official launching of the MTF Symposium, Viet Nam National Administration Chairman, Nguy?n V?n Tu?n, announced that five western European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK- would be included into the list of countries benefiting from a visa exemption for Viet Nam, joining a list of 18 other countries, which already enjoy no-visa-required status for the country.
For many years, the Mekong only spoke about the necessity to improve infrastructure and human resources to cope with a rapid development of tourism. There are now over 50 million travellers to the Mekong region, with over 70 million expected within a few years. Arguably, the necessity now is to slowdown the pace of growth, or at least bring a new quality dimension to that picture.
“In the context of globalization, there is a risk for the six countries shaping the GMS to lose their cultural identity and also destroy their natural assets,” said Peter Semone, Chief Technical Advisor of LANITH, the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality.
“We need to slow down the pace of development and look back at the true heart of that part of Asia – the Mekong River itself,” he said.
The Mekong River is now to be part of a broad strategy of diversification of the tourism experience, according to the MTCO. Tourism stakeholders identified river cruise tourism as a major appeal for the region, complementary to ocean cruises. “It appeals to a growing niche market and covers diverse activities such as ecotourism and community-based tourism,” said Le Tuan Anh, Deputy Director General in the Tourism Marketing Department of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.
Adventure tourism was also acknowledged as an important market segment by speakers. Adventure tourism is now chosen by around 40% of travelers, generating some US$263 billion globally each year.Adventure appears not only as a physical experience but also as a way to immerse travellers into local culture and interact with the environment.
Community-based tourism (CBT) remains a major asset for the Mekong region as it integrates the Mekong population into tourism strategies and gives them a possibility to understand tourism and learn best practices to welcome travellers.
Speakers at the forum said that one of the most promising tourism segments was gastronomy tourism along the Mekong River. This niche interest highlights the culinary specialties of the entire region by pointing to a common use of ingredients and helps raise awareness of the different ways to prepare and present food. The MTF will continue to support the development of gastronomy tours with the public sector.
Linked to a strategy of multi-country trails highlighted by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office and the Asia Development Bank, these segments will help promote second and third-tier destinations. Eight routes were identified and presented during the forum. Social media will then play an important role of informing travellers about emerging destinations and trends in the GMS.
During the forum, public and private sector speakers agreed on the necessity of investing wisely in infrastructure and in the hospitality sector. Contrary to a few years ago, investors are now taking a more sustainable approach to growth in the region.
The establishment of cultural routes will bring numerous benefits according to Daniel Voellm of consulting company HVS. Cultural routes will strengthen cooperation between government and non-government institutions as well as with the private sector. They will help rethink strategy development, generating new travel experiences through innovative products and help to further develop infrastructure.
Cultural routes in the Mekong region will ultimately help to create a brand and content around Mekong tourism activities and foster creativity among the local population, said Voellm.
The next Mekong Tourism Forum will be hosted in June 2016 in Cambodia. All stakeholders interested with the evolution of the Greater Mekong Subregion are invited to participate to the next edition. The revamped Mekong Tourism Website will soon post information about the future event and also give the opportunities for stakeholders to express their views on the future content for the 2016 Mekong Tourism Forum.