What’s needed is the reverse: convincing governments of the need to protect their country from tourism...
When I think of the next 50 years of ASEAN tourism, I shudder. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this at the end of the year, when throngs of tourists are queueing to get through Thai immigration in Bangkok. Thailand’s 34 millionth visitor was decorated on December 22; and the kingdom will, without a doubt, achieve their tourism earnings target – US$50 billion – for 2017.
ASEAN, not just Thailand, is doing extremely well. Just look at WTTC’s report on the world’s 10 fastest-growing tourism cities. Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are on the list, with 10 to 11 per cent growth per year over the next 10 years, outpacing Asia-Pacific’s average growth rate of 5.8 per cent and the world’s average of four per cent.
Such exponential growth is what makes me shudder. As ASEAN tourism leaders and industry members meet at ATF 2018 in January in Chiang Mai, I hope they will give some thought as to how ASEAN destinations might look like 10, 20, 50 years from now.
It is no secret that in the last 50 years of ASEAN tourism, progress has come with ill effects: once-pristine resort destinations have turned crappy and cheap; cities immobilised by traffic jams, heritage sites ruined by too many footfalls. How might ASEAN destinations look like in the future if many of them aren’t able to cope with tourism growth now, or are not setting up the infrastructure that will enable them to reap growth without betraying their land, people, values, culture and heritage?
Tourism is easy money, especially with the rise of Asia’s middle income group and the expansion of low-cost carriers. No need to convince governments of tourism’s contribution to the economy. What’s needed is the reverse: convincing governments of the need to protect their country from tourism – specifically ‘over-tourism’ and unsustainable tourism development.
ASEAN turned 50 in 2017 and it’s bittersweet that it also lost its much-admired former secretary-general (2008-2012) and former Thai foreign minister, Surin Pitsuwan, who died of an acute heart attack on November 30. At ATF this January, it will be wonderful if we could take a minute to digest Surin’s last words on tourism which, befittingly, was about sustainability.
The “tapestry of contrasts” of ASEAN’s 10-member countries made it such an attractive destination and, because of this diversity, the regional travel and tourism industry should pay equal attention to the socio-cultural and political-security blueprints of ASEAN, “not just economic, economic, economic all the time”, Surin had said.
“If we are not careful, we will have problems of congestion and environmental impact, which will also impact the cultural resources that we value.
“Tourism is supposed to be one activity that creates opportunity for everyone. Let us make the ASEAN destination attractive, sustainable, accessible and playing the role of equalising that income. Tourism is a goose laying golden eggs. We can’t starve it, nor can we over-feed, nor ignore it, nor take too much advantage of it.”