new frontiers Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues
in the Mekong Subregion Vol. 9, No. 1 January-February 2003
’NO’ TO WAR
[Travel Trade Gazette-Online: 24.1.03; 26.1.03; ASEAN Tourism Forum 2003-Online; Pacific Asia Travel Association-Online; Bangkok Post: 24.2.03] – ALL individual players polled at the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) 2003 in Phnom Penh in January said they do not want a war. The theme of this year’s ATF was “ASEAN Unity: Ensuring a Brighter Future”.
"Nobody wants the war,” commented Albert Stienissen, group director-business development of Travelnet Malaysia. “The 9-11 and Bali events have already caused a 70 to 80 per cent drop in long-haul travellers."
Winnie Chua, sales director of the Promenade Hotel Kota Kinabalu, said: "We don't want a war. I don't know how much it will affect our business directly, but it will. I agree that the trade associations must take a stand to say 'no' to the war. We don't know how effective that will be, but we have to try."
"Like 9-11, hotel occupancies will deteriorate,” said Bernadette Dennis, Marriott Hotels’ vice-president for worldwide sales. “Jobs such as the laundry people, the florists, the drivers, will all be affected because such is the extent of tourism as a business in this region. If this war, perceived to be religious, were to break out, the impact would be worse than 9-11 and Bali, because of the insecurities it would create. There will be increased anguish between the different cultures."
The corporate director of sales & marketing of Meritus Hotels & Resorts, Mr Craig Fong, commented: “The immediate impact of the war would be on occupancy from the leisure, corporate and MICE (Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Exhibition) segments especially from the long-haul markets, which are already under threat. But the psychological and economic effects will be long-term because even when the war is over, there will be a fear of retaliation in the form of terrorism."
Hadi Taryoto, managing director of the Bali Rani Hotel, said: "Of course we do not want the war to happen. I agree that the travel associations should voice it loudly. The more associations the better. It will at least add to the other sectors, other people and associations which have already taken a stand."
“The travel and tourism industry is no longer dictated by market forces. Political, social and cultural forces will dictate where people go. Right now, it's wait and see. The entire industry is being held hostage by the threat of war.''
John Koldowski, PATA’s chief research officer Surprisingly, the threat of war on Iraq was not directly on the official agenda at the sixth meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers, which was held on 24 January in conjunction with the ATF. However, national tourism organizations convened a special informal roundtable to discuss the matter and to develop a common stand in the event of a prolonged war, in the hope of minimizing its impact on tourism. The participants of the roundtable agreed that each ASEAN country convene a seminar as soon as possible at home.
Meanwhile, a statement by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) said that during a conflict, tourism is among the first affected sectors and maybe the worst affected. It predicted that the impact of a new regional conflict on human life, jobs, income and livelihood would be incalculable and take years to rebuild. PATA Vice President, Mr. Peter Semone, said: "Apart from the humanitarian tragedy of any new hostilities, the last thing the travel industry needs now is a new conflict which will cause the cancellation of travel across many sectors globally. Civilized societies should be able to reach their security objectives without resorting to armed conflict."
Before the world's biggest travel trade show, the ITB, opens in Berlin, PATA’s chief research officer John Koldowski said the shifting sands of international politics and loyalties over the war on Iraq could well be reflected in future choice of destinations for holidays or conventions. “The travel and tourism industry is no longer dictated by market forces,'' he said. “Political, social and cultural forces will dictate where people go. Right now, it's wait and see. The entire industry is being held hostage by the threat of war.''
“Many countries are now acutely aware their economies are going to be suffering through any kind of conflict,'' said Koldowski. He added what might help is if the industry came up with solid facts and figures showing the economic impact of a downturn, which would be a reversal of the various positive factors which were once liberally cited in order to stoke an industry upturn (see also ILO, p.2).
ASEAN DECLARATION ON TOURISM SAFETY AND SECURITY
[ATF2003-Online: 24.1.2003] – RECOGNIZING terrorism as a major threat to tourism development in the region, the sixth meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers held in Phnom Penh issued a Declaration on Tourism Safety and Security. The Declaration stated, “As safety and security is the heart of tourism, we are committed to work together with the relevant government bodies in combating terrorism, including preventive and repressive actions to ensure the safety and security of travellers in this region.”
To ensure travellers’ safety in the region, the ministers vowed to work closely with the relevant ASEAN bodies in reviewing existing policies and adopting appropriate measures to prevent tourism-related threats and to cooperate with the law enforcement agencies to ensure the strengthening of security in airports, seaports and all tourists’ sites.
The ministers also launched an ASEAN Tourism Safety website to provide “official information on safety and security for the public, companies, the media as well as foreign governments.” According to officials, this tourism safety information is also meant to counter controversial foreign government advisories warning people about travelling in the region (see also ‘Travel Advisories’; more on tourist safety and security see Cambodia section ‘Riots’ and Laos section ‘Tourist Killings’).
2002: THE YEAR OF TRAVEL ADVSISORIES
The following is edited from Vijay Verghese’s Travelling Light column (TN: 18.1.03]
You will be excused for thinking 2002 was the Year of the Horse. It was not. It was the Year of the Travel Advisory. For those who are unaware of these nifty notices, travel advisories are issued by the US State Department.
However, unlike any good travel agency whose advisories contain useful information on room rates, breakfast, and whether children under 12 can stay free, these State Department alerts miss out on crucial detail, and American breakfasts are clearly omitted. It’s a great pity, really because good American breakfasts are what great holidays are made of.
However, the State Department is not happy with the travel profile of Americans. It wants them to travel to the Gulf, which is a lot warmer than New York, and sunny, despite the occasional forecast of mushroom clouds. To facilitate this enterprise, it is organizing cruises, in uniform, where tour groups following flag-waving leaders into the desert, but not in air-conditioned coaches. They travel in Humvees, which are great for “wadi bashing” (dune drives) and, perhaps, a spot of “Iraqi bashing” if the itinerary permits or if one of the weapons inspectors finally finds that stash of Coleman’s English mustard the Iraqi army is so fond of.
By the end of 2002, travel warnings by the State Department were issued against (to name a few) Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Jordan, Venezuela, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, Libya, Somalia, Angola, Pakistan, Nigeria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Bosnia & Herzegoniva, Macedonia, Iran and Algeria. In addition, public announcements (short-term threat notices) were issued for the Philippines (the notice – and presumably the threat – expires on July 1), East Africa, Kenya, Turkmenistan, Solomon Islands, Argentina, East Timor, Nepal, Malaysia (notice expires on May 14), India (notice expires on March 20).
Believing all this to be insufficient (as Americans could still travel to the toilet), the State Department issued a Worldwide Caution on November 2002 that runs until May 20. That’s pretty comprehensive.
“Where are you going, sir?”
It is clear that Americans should stop travelling. Not to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or New Delhi, where the worst thing that might happen is a satay overdose or a headbutt by a holy cow, but to New York that provides inspiring figures. In 2000, there were 952 murders, 124,890 violent crimes, 3,530 rapes and 40,539 robberies. The murder rate in the US is now three times above the international average, four times higher than Japan’s and nine times higher than China’s. It is a measure of the developing world’s immaturity that no advisories have been issued by India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines against the US.
The thing is these US-style package tours are catching on. The North Koreans would like to organize a few travel packages of their own and send groups (also in uniform) to the South bearing green glowing things. Saddam Hussein improvised an itinerary some ten years ago but was overwhelmed by American tourists. That’s the power of travel.
TRAVEL WOES COST MILLIONS OF TOURISM-RELATED JOBS, SAYS ILO
[International Labour Oorganization-Online: 28.1.03) - MILLIONS of jobs in the world tourism sector have been lost due to political turmoil, the global economic downturn and growing unease among many travellers with little prospect of any recovery in employment in the sector before 2005, according to a new study by the International Labour Office (ILO).
The ILO report entitled ‘The impact of the 2001-2002 crisis on the hotel and tourism industry’, says that during 2001 and 2002, tourism-related businesses shed some 6.6 million jobs worldwide - putting one out of every 12 workers in the sector out of a job.
The problems facing tourism have had negative consequences in many countries. Factors hampering a recovery are fears of more attacks on tourists such as those that occurred in Bali and Kenya in 2002, as well as political developments in the Middle East and elsewhere, changing consumer travel preferences and the general state of the global economy, the ILO report says.
According to the report, the hotel and tourism industry has been suffering from the combined effects of a general economic downturn that began in early 2001 and the shock wave from the September 11 attacks in the United States. While economic recession had already brought down the industry's previously strong 4.5 per cent annual growth rate to well below 4 per cent, the industry's growth rate plunged for the whole year 2001 into negative territory between -1 per cent and -5 per cent.
New tourism trends also show an inclination of travellers to stay closer to home. Experts agree that patterns such as "sea, sand and sun"- and particularly the desire of many tourists to travel to far-away, exotic destinations - are likely going out of fashion. Developing countries will face a particular challenge in order to compensate for a decline in long distance travel. Bali is a good example: After the terrorist attack, the island's tourism industry is trying to make up for the declining number of tourists from Japan, Australia and Western markets by attracting budget tourists from neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia, as well as domestic visitors from Indonesia's main island of Java.
One of the countries most affected by the September 11 events is the United States, with international tourist arrivals having fallen on average more than 30 per cent from the level of the same period the previous year, the report says. Countries near the United States also received significantly fewer tourists in 2001 than at the same time of the year before, e.g. Canada (-19 per cent), Cuba (-26 per cent), the Dominican Republic (- 25 per cent), Mexico (-24 per cent) and Jamaica (-20 per cent). In Europe, countries expecting a high proportion of tourists originating from the United States experienced steep declines in international tourism in 2001, including the United Kingdom (-12 per cent), Germany (-17 per cent), Switzerland (-16 per cent), Italy (-11 per cent) and Austria (-9 per cent). Elsewhere, the Philippines (-25 per cent) and Australia (-21 per cent) registered double-digit declines.
Other countries experienced a significant drop in their 2001 total tourist numbers because, rightly or wrongly, they were associated with security risks not necessarily connected to the September 11 events. These countries included Egypt (-16 per cent), Nepal (-22 per cent) and Sri Lanka (-16 per cent). Morocco's tourist industry recorded a 43 per cent revenue drop in January 2002 compared to January 2001.
Among the rare winners in 2001 were countries in Southern Europe, a region that continues to receive higher numbers of foreign tourists than in previous years, probably because they provide a convenient alternative to long-haul destinations for many European tourists. Other winners were China and Vietnam, which experienced an impressive growth in both domestic and inbound tourism.
FOCUS ON ECOTOURISM
The October to December 2002 edition of Mekong Update & Dialogue, a publication of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney, highlighted ecotourism issues by presenting a lead article by Anita Pleumarom of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team, entitled “ ‘Sustainable’ Mekong Tourism: A Realistic Approach or Hot Air?”, and two responses to Anita’s feature: one by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Pham Trung Luong, Vice Director of the Institute of Tourism Development Research in Hanoi, Vietnam, and one by Pradech Phayakvichien, a former governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Mekong Update’s Editorial states. “While ecotourism has emerged partly in response to the past negative impacts, it has itself become the subject of debate. In part, this is due to the lip-service paid to environmental concern under the legitimizing rubric of ecotourism in projects that are very much business as usual... By commodifying “nature” as a major revenue and foreign exchange income, resources that have hitherto been integral to the livelihoods of the rural poor become the object of business-oriented conservation interests.”
“What, then, are the appropriate responses?” asks the Editorial. “One is to reject tourism or further tourism growth, and to pay primary attention to cleaning up existing tourism activity and protecting affected communities, cultures and environments from further predations. Another is through a more technocratic planning approach, stressing better planning and regulation of the industry. In this regard, the public sector role is crucial, as intimated by both respondents to the main feature… However, the state’s role as regulator and as provider of facilitating infrastructure, with implicit public subsidies to tourism, raises further questions of ambivalence.”
For more information on Mekong Update, visit www.mekong.es.usyd.edu.au.
ACT NOW - SAY NO TO FLIGHTS TO BURMA!
Burma Campaign Austria has launched an international campaign against Austria's Lauda Air, which recently started a direct flight service to Burma in defiance of international bodies opposing cooperation with the military regime on human-rights grounds. The aim of the campaign is the termination of all flights of AUA - Lauda Air to Burma.
With the exception of Austrian Airlines (AUA) using the brand of its subsidiary Lauda Air no other European airline is connecting Rangoon directly to Europe. Since 5 November AUA offers flights to Rangoon from Vienna and some months longer from Milano in Italy to Rangoon.
The Burma link also brought condemnation in advance from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which put Lauda Air on its blacklist of 325 firms operating in the Asian country. ICFTU, representing 157 million workers in 148 countries, accused the airline of supporting the "brutal and repressive military dictatorship". Moreover, several exiled and opposition groups like the National Democratic League of the Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi to stop new investment and to review existing economic contacts with Burma.
Under a resolution of the International Labour Organization (ILO) of November 2000, international firms should boycott Burma due to the use slave labour in the country. For instance, large-scale forced labour has been reported on several tourism projects including the Golden Palace in Mandalay, the construction of a dam at Inle Lake, the laying of a railway line near Pagan's temple complex and the building or upgrading of airports. The military regime’s efforts to attract tourists "is responsible for a lot of forced labour," Aung San Suu Kyi once stated.
Burma Campaign Austria pointed out in a press release that officials of the AUA-group, which owns Lauda Air, have shown no understanding of the situation at all.
In a letter to ICFTU, AUA’s Executive Vice President and Secretary General Peter Malanik said: “Austrian Airlines are convinced that international air travel and tourism greatly contributes to a coherence of values in all societies. Thus the inclusion of Myanmar [Burma] in global cooperation and the resulting intercultural exchange will eventually help the people of Myanmar [Burma] more effectively and bring about changes faster than isolation and boycott could do.”
Therefore, the campaigners are encouraging individuals, groups, companies and state bodies to influence the management of AUA to break off contacts to Burma and cancel all flights. In addition, they are calling on concerned people to write or forward protest notes to offices of other airlines and particularly to the Star Alliance – a cooperation body of airlines including AUA – to show that ALL attempts to operate flights to Burma will be opposed.
AUA contacts: Austrian Airlines, Fontanastr. 1, A-1107 Wien, AUSTRIA
Members of Star Alliance are among others Lufthansa (which operates a ticket office in Rangoon selling AUA- tickets too), Thai Airways (operating Bangkok-Rangoon), United Airlines, Varig and others. Their email-address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the action on AUA-Lauda Air, contact Burma Campaign Austria, Wielandgasse 2-4,
[The Nation: 31.1.03; 14.2.03; Bangkok Post: 3.2.03; 6.2.03; 8.2.03] - THE burning of the Thai Embassy and rage against other Thai premises in Phnom Penh has seriously hurt Cambodia’s economic and tourism opportunities. The mob attack started on 29 January, only two days after the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) was held in the city.
Ith Sarin, chief of the Kop Srau Sustainable Agriculture Centre, said the violent incident damaged the reputation of his country. Cambodia's heritage, culture and tourism sites had attracted tourists but “suddenly we have problems about the riot,'' he said.
His concern about the impact on tourism was shared by Mom Samach, a taxi driver who depends on foreign visitors for his income. Since the rioting, fewer foreign tourists, both Thai and Westerners, had arrived in Cambodia, he said. “I think they are reluctant to come here now because they are thinking about their safety,'' he said. The violence reminded Mom Samach of what he went through in 1997 following a power play between forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and those backing then co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The fighting in Phnom Penh then plunged the tourism sector to the depths. “At that time, the flow of tourists dropped for about three months so that I had to find a second job,'' the cabbie recalled.
Tourism has become a key industry in Cambodia, with almost 800,000 foreigners visiting the country last year. During the ATF in January, the government launched ‘Visit Cambodia Year 2003’, but the Phnom Penh riot is expected to severely hamper the tourism campaign that aims to attract one million foreign visitors this year. “The tourism event was very well organized. Cambodia shows strong potential. Unfortunately, they destroyed it in one night,” said Sakchai Tungkorlab, the owner of the Thai-run Juliana Hotel.
Another casualty is the Cambodian-Thai “Two Kingdoms, One Destination'' joint-campaign that was introduced in 2001. Under the present ruling no official business is allowed and that has technically ended all bilateral co-operation in promotion and education between Cambodia's Ministry of Tourism and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
As a result of the riots, flights were suspended and many tour groups canceled their trips to Cambodia. Overland tourism vanished as border checkpoints were closed. It was a significant business with as many as 300 travellers crossing the border every week to make the trip to Siem Reap.
“It could not have been worse,” wrote Don Ross, a Bangkok Post tourism analyst. “At the point when Cambodia reached the peak, it plunged its tourism industry into a pit of despair. It was noted that the architects of the riots waited until the ATF closed before they made a move, but they failed to recognize that a considerable number of delegates were still in the country, visiting other destinations. Many of them discovered they were stranded, having missed connections to flights out of Bangkok.”
One ATF participant said in a letter to The Nation, “Prime Minister Hun Sen, Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara actively partook in the Forum and received praise from the [1,500] delegates and world media for an event which cost the Cambodian government US$1 million and took nearly two years to organize.”
“Then how did everything just blow up the next day after the Forum, reducing the grandiose four-day event to a sad rubble of words?” he asked.
SET TO BECOME A REGIONAL TRANSIT HUB
[Agence France Presse: 3.2.03; Travel Trade Gazette-Online: 25.1.03] - LAOS, one of the world’s poorest nations, has embarked on an ambitious programme of road building intended to connect it with its neighbours and turn the landlocked country into a regional transit hub. Opening up to Southeast Asia seems the only possible option for Laos with its 5.3 million inhabitants, most of whom are farmers scattered across the mountainous regions of the country.
Laos wants a North-South artery to connect China to Thailand and Cambodia. An East-West corridor would also allow the transit of goods and people between Burma and Vietnam’s ports. Another road would allow trade between Yunnan province in south China and northwest Thailand, via one of the poorest areas of Laos.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is playing a key role in the strategy: In 1992, it helped found the Great Mekong Subregion (GMS) to finalize infrastructure projects connecting the six Mekong countries — Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China.
"We look at it not only from an economic point of view, but also from a political point of view, as a bridge for peace," said ADB director in Vientiane Paul Turner. (In Laos), "we try to give the planners at central and regional levels an awareness of the regional dimension of development," he said.
The task is enormous, officials acknowledge. "The road structure is very rudimentary. We need to provide access to all provincial capitals," said a Laotian transport ministry official. "As for the regional perspective, we want to promote cooperation with neighbouring countries and provide economic links."
Laos is slowly but surely opening up to tourism. This year, Laos is expecting about 700,000 tourist arrivals and US$113 million in receipts. The priority markets are: Europe, notably France, the UK and Germany; Asia-Pacific, particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Australia; and the North American market.
Infrastructure development is having an impact on arrivals to Laos and is the key factor for the country to gain more tourism market share. For example, the opening of the Australian-funded Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River in 1998 gave a major boost to overland travel from Thailand. Thai visitors to Laos nearly doubled between 1996 and 2000, and although the total slipped back below 400,000 in 2001, Thailand still accounts for eight out of every 10 ASEAN tourists to Laos, and 56 per cent of its worldwide arrivals.
In addition to the bridge and other improved road links, there have also been improvements to airport facilities. A US$15.2 million investment from the ADB in 2001 means that both Pakse and Suwanakhet airports can now accommodate landings by Fokker 70 and ATR72 aircraft.
Airports at the ancient capital Luang Prabang, and the capital Vientiane, have also been brought up to scratch and airline seat capacity has been increased to reflect growing interest in the country. Flag carrier Lao Aviation, which recently received help from Air France Consulting, is the dominant international carrier but Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways International, Vietnam Airlines, PB Air and China Yunnan Airlines also operate services.
Laos, highly dependent on the port of Bangkok, will soon be able to use some deep water ports on the Vietnamese coast and trade at the border posts between the two countries already shows vitality.
But Laotian authorities have yet to ensure that increasing tourism and trade benefit Laos as well as its neighbours. "A Japanese businessman said to me recently that there was a risk that the country will collect only the empty bottles of Coke, which fall from passing trucks," a French-Lao economic consultant said.
In order to finance construction of the link between Yunnan and the north of Thailand, the government had in the mid-1990's signed concession deals with Thai and Chinese firms engaged in the project, allowing them to exploit roadside areas for the next 30 years. It almost seemed the country and local people had given up benefits from the rise in traffic. The joint-venture in charge of coordinating construction ran into financing problems and the government cancelled the deals.
This episode is symptomatic of the vulnerability of Laos in negotiating with its neighbours. "When you do not have anything to give, the negotiations are more difficult," said one foreign observer. Indeed, Laos has many times in its history been exploited by its more powerful neighbours. Therefore, it is not surprising that this new development strategy has met significant resistance from some members of the ruling Communist Party.
TOURIST KILLINGS MAR COUNTRY’S IMAGE
The following is a shortened version of an opinion piece by Don Ross [Bangkok Post: 13.2.03]
IT was the classical story of being in the right place at the wrong time. For the two European cyclists who were travelling the highway just 6 km from the popular resort village of Vang Vieng, it turned into a tragedy. [Beginning of February], they died in an ambush that killed 10 bus travellers and seriously injured 16 other passengers on a section of road used by thousands of tourists every year. It rekindles fears that the popular road to Luang Prabang is again unsafe for travellers.
Touring cyclists are probably the most innocuous of all road users. They carry few belongings worth stealing. Local residents often feel sorry for them, assuming they must be paupers or quite potty to opt for such a lowly transport mode. But it didn't stop bandits opening fire, killing the cyclists, passengers on a local bus and the driver of a farm tractor.
Vang Vieng is a halfway house, just 150 km north of the Lao capital. It is here overland travellers recharge their batteries, exchange stories and travel information before embarking on the trip through the mountains to Luang Prabang. Laos discovered its niche in tourism with its own brand of the outdoors and active lifestyle experience, all very much in tune with the environment. This kind of tourism by its very nature tends to place tourists in regions that may not be entirely safe.
It's not the first time that bandits have challenged law and order on the winding road through the hills to Luang Prabang. There has been a string of these so-called isolated incidents, particularly in areas that are earmarked for ecotourism development. It's a tempting option for travellers who like to mix air travel with overland trips. They join an air-conditioned mini-bus for the outward trip, making stops on the way for sightseeing, and then take a flight back to Bangkok after a few days in Luang Prabang.
Laos is the host of the 2004 ASEAN Tourism Forum next January. It is keen to show its own brand of tourism, but if it doesn't end lawlessness that touches the lives of residents and tourists alike, talk of Laos becoming a niche market jewel of regional tourism is premature and possibly dangerous to those who buy it without knowing the facts.
Security in many of the Mekong region countries is not up to scratch. It was pure luck that no tourists were hurt in the [recent] riots in Phnom Penh. Eventually, diplomatic relations will be healed between Thailand and Cambodia, but the incident will leave lingering doubts that there could be more unrest leading up to the July elections in a country that has shown it has a very short fuse in the department of public unrest [see Cambodia section].
While risks are low in Thailand, the challenge is to manage tourism expansion. It can go wrong, especially if the visiting haves show off their wealth to the have-nots. There’s a case for promotional containment where the tourism industry concentrates on places that have adequate police protection, instead of selling every bay of white sand from here to the Malaysian border without a thought for security. Until countries in Southeast Asia deliver a high level of security for their own residents, tour operators would be wise to flag some of their trips as red hot in the risk department rather than soft adventure.
FRENZY TO CREATE NEW TOURISM HUBS
[Bangkok Post: 16.1.03; 26.1.03; The Nation: 9.1.03; 15.1.03; 15.1.03] – PRIME MINISTER Thaksin Shinawatra announced in January massive plans to turn Chiang Mai and Phuket into international aviation hubs to boost tourism and other industries.
As for Chiang Mai in the North, the airport and public infrastructure need to be upgraded significantly if the government wants to create another air-hub, particularly for the Mekong subregion, said Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, the CEO of Bangkok Airways. The government should consider building a “new town'' in the province to accommodate the rising number of visitors if Chiang Mai becomes an aviation hub, he added .
The existing city should be kept as an “old town'' but a newly created city would be needed to attract more tourists, he said. “Once the city widens its gateway, other facilities should be created in line with the policy.''
Officials have estimated that US$700 million would have to be invested in order for Chiang Mai airport to accommodate up to 10 million passengers a year.
However, private airline operators and public voices expressed sharp criticism of the government’s plan to let Singapore Airlines (SIA) develop Chiang Mai into an aviation hub. For instance, the president of PB Air, Jothin Pamon-Montri, said developing Chiang Mai International Airport was a good idea – but it was not appropriate to allow SIA do the job.
With SIA a major competitor of Thai Airways International, granting it a business role in Chiang Mai may hurt the country’s aviation industry as a whole. “If Singapore Airlines is allowed to operate the regional airline, it would amount to Thailand handing over its traffic rights to a foreign entity,” said Jothin. “We should not give them domestic traffic rights. The rights are a national asset.”
The initiative to turn Chiang Mai into a new air-hub came directly from PM Thaksin. He recently ordered THAI to operate flights between Chiang Mai and Chittagong, a major city in Bangladesh. Thaksin, a Chiang Mai native with major stakes in local enterprise, also expressed hopes to open new links this year between the northern city and destinations in Burma, Vietnam and China.
Meanwhile, PM Thaksin, eager to strengthen the political base of his Thai Rak Thai party in southern Thailand, also declared his support for a provincial plan to invest US$2.5 billion to turn Phuket into a special economic zone and tourism hub. The pledge was made to some 3,000 state officials, businessmen and local residents who joined him at a seminar to lay down strategies to develop the island resort.
Thaksin said that Phuket was no different from Singapore 40 years ago but the island nation has developed far ahead of the Thai resort. He added, “Political instability and lack of strategic management have resulted in a loss of opportunity for the country. Therefore, we will need to think and put our act together.''
The budget could be spent during a period of five to six years to improve Phuket's environment and infrastructure, said Thaksin. Projects would be drawn up to develop the island into a centre for tourism, finance, aviation, information technology and a duty-free city.
PHUKET’S POPULARITY FADING
[Bangkok Post: 20.2.03] - PHUKET is feeling the pinch from declining tourism, and local businesses are calling for urgent action to put it back at the top of the world destinations. Foreign visitors are spending less, and the resort island's popularity has dropped, apparently because of its deteriorating environment.
The provincial tourism business association recently held a workshop to brainstorm ways to rectify the problem. The forum was attended by local administration organizations, travel agencies, people from the Tourism and Sports Ministry, and non-governmental organizations specializing in environment protection.
Pattanapong Ekvanich, chairman of the Phuket Tourism Business Association, said ominous signs had emerged suggesting the province's tourism sector was on a steady decline. Foreign visitors to the island were spending considerably less per head and Phuket as a tourist destination was no longer selling well in overseas markets.
Pattanapong said Phuket would find it painstakingly hard to lure tourists back if the country was not seriously committed to improving its tourism landscape. Both short- and medium-term measures were needed to restore Phuket's reputation as a world class resort.
BID TO REVIVE CONTROVERSIAL CABLE CAR PROJECT
[Bangkok Post: 24.1.03] - A CABLE CAR project that was shelved under a previous government due to environmental concerns has been revived in a bid to attract more tourists to Phu Kradueng National Park. A joint state and private sector committee agreed the project would substantially help to develop the economy of Loei, said provincial governor Pairat Pojchanachai.
It was expected the cable car would shuttle up to 20,000 tourists per day, or seven million per year, to the top of Phu Kradueng mountain, he said. Local vendors and trekking guides would be recruited to work on the service.
A proposal for a cable car link at Phu Kradueng was originally floated during the administration of former prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa, which commissioned a private company to undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The project was subsequently put on ice after more than 44 per cent of respondents to a public survey said they were concerned about the potential for environmental damage by the extra tourists.
Pairat insisted the cable car would not cause environmental damage, saying the system would be designed with its surroundings in mind. Loei Rajabhat Institute environmentalist Chaiwut Montreerak recommended the public be involved in the decision-making process for the project to minimize any risk of conflict.
WORRIES ABOUT KOH CHANG’S ENVIRONMENT
[Bangkok Post: 25.2.03] - TOURISM operators are worried about Koh Chang's environment, saying too many private land owners are haphazardly developing the island. Speaking at a seminar titled “Sustainable Tourism on Koh Phi Phi and Koh Chang'', they said there was no clear government framework for the development of Koh Chang in Trat province.
Sakol Sunetr, president of the Trat Tourism Association, said although the island had been declared a special administrative zone, the government had yet to announce an action plan as it was waiting for the establishment of a public organization to run Koh Chang, expected to happen within two months.
Koh Chang had many problems from the booming tourism, which allowed cars on the island, causing pollution, traffic problems and damaging the forest.
Many private operators had bought land on Koh Chang for business purposes since the plan was to develop the island as an upmarket tourist site. The results would defeat the policy of turning Koh Chang into an “ecotourism” island. He suggested the island limit the number of tourists to prevent running into problems as popular tourism destinations, like Pattaya, had done.
CULTURE CLASH AS ‘HOMESTAYS’ SPLIT VILLAGES
[The Nation: 23.1.03; Bangkok Post: 24.1.03; 6.2.03] – IN January, a Thai ecotour operator, REST (Responsible Ecological Social Tours), received the 2002 World Legacy Awards by the US-based conservation group Conservation International and the National Geographic Travellers magazine. The project was honoured for its homestay programme in a Muslim community on the island of Koh Yao Noi near Phuket.
However, homestay programmes – as promoted by official tourism agencies, private operators and even NGOs - have divided local communities. The homestay model with strangers living under the same roof as homeowners, runs counter to local culture, argues scholar Srisak Vallibhotama. It has caused conflicts among local people, weakening communities. Conflicts arise because benefits from the programme were not evenly shared.
“It was not unusual for the benefits to be enjoyed within a small circle while others may receive nothing from homestay promotions,'' he said. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has promoted the programme without concern for the potential impact. “Villagers should build a guesthouse which belongs to the community, rather than take individuals into their home. Villagers would then take turns hosting visitors,'' he said.
Pranee Wongthes, an anthropologist at Silpakorn University, said conflicts had been reported in Amphawa district of Samut Songkhram, Kiriwong in Lan Saka district of Nakhon Si Thammarat and Khao Yoi district of Phetchaburi.
To keep away tourists, angry villagers in Samut Songkhram cut down a lampu tree, a habitat for fireflies and a tourist highlight. People were forced to perform sacred ceremonies, sometimes more than once a day, in exchange for tourist money. Thai hosts tried too hard to please their guests, while guests, who were used to an urban lifestyle, could be too demanding.
A source at TAT acknowledged the problem and said the agency no longer promoted the programme so enthusiastically.
TOURISM TRADE UP
[The Nation: 20.1.03] – ENTICED by Vietnam’s off-the-beaten-track reputation and its perceived immunity from global terrorism, swelling numbers of foreign visitors are putting a strain on the country’s tourism infrastructure. With international arrivals rising nearly 13 per cent last year to 2.63 million, and top hotels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) reporting bursting occupancy rates, industry experts believe Vietnam is fast outgrowing its current capacity.
“There is a shortage of accommodation in Vietnam at this moment, not just for five-star hotels but for quality accommodation catering to all budgets,” said Stephen O’Grady, manager of HCMC’s luxury Caravelle Hotel. “Vietnam needs to keep developing the market to cater to the varied demands of the international traveller,” he added.
In recognition of this growing demand, the government announced in January that it would invest US$29 million this year in the sector, a 20 per cent increase from the US$24 million spent in 2002.
The seeds of Vietnam’s tourist industry were sown in 1986, when the ruling Communist Party embarked on its long and painful transition to a market economy. But more than 16 years later, Vietnam still remains a small player on the Southeast Asian tourism scene compared to Indonesia and Thailand.
Most tourists come to Vietnam for a cross-country trip, including major cities and cultural centres such as Hue and Hoi An. But few come to spend a week on the beach – a niche, which could be profitably filled, according to Louk Lennaerts, a Dutch hotel developer who is hoping to cash in on the estimated 2.8 million foreign visitors and 14 million domestic tourists per year.
“[Beach tourists] are the category of visitors that Vietnam should look to attract,” he said. “Once they start coming to beach resorts, you start getting repeating guests.” Laennarts, who has already invested some US$2 million in building an luxurious spa resort in the coastal province of Binh Dinh, said he was also working on development plans to take the “lifestyle” resorts to the former imperial capital of Hue and Halong Bay to plug the holes in the market.
FAMOUS ELEPHANT VILLAGE EARMARKED FOR “ COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM
[Vietnam News Agency: 10.2.03] – SOME US$325,000 have so far been injected in building infrastructure for Buon Don (Island Village) as part of a project to turn it into a major tourist attraction of Dak Lak province and the Central Highlands region at large. Buon Don, one of the sites chosen to be developed into a culturally attractive ecotourism venue in Vietnam, has a total investment of US$3.38 million, including US$1.6 million from the State budget earmarked for infrastructure construction.
Situated 50 km to the northwest of Buon Ma Thuot City, the capital of the Central Highlands province of Dac Lac, Buon Don has long been known as home to the age-old career of hunting and taming wild elephants. It is also a habitat of a mixed community comprising such ethnic minority groups as E De, Mnong, Gia Rai, Lao and Thai. Under the project, a tourist resort will be built at Buon Don with the centre-piece being a tourist village, embodying tangible and intangible local cultures.
The future tourist village is expected to have 50 to 70 households of 7 to 10 different ethnic minority tribes, designed to offer a kind of community-based tourism: Tourists would stay with villagers, sharing meals with them, watching them do cloth weaving, statue carving and rice alcohol distilling, and riding elephants. Music performances and festivals are also to be organized.
According to tourist officials, prospects for Buon Don are rosy given a larger project to develop ecotourism in the resort's vicinity. The project, to cover 1,600 hectares, will boast a wild animal safari park and other ecotourist sites, adjacent to lovely Dak Min lake and the Yok Don National Park. The mountain village on the bank of the Serepop river was first tapped for tourism purposes by the Ban Me Service-Tourism-Trade Joint Stock Company (Banmeco) in 1998, when it set up here a Buon Don Tourism Centre.