Pakse, a small city nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don Rivers in the southern Laos province of Champasak, was the staging ground for the first-ever ASEAN Ecotourism Forum (AEF) in June. For three days, tourism ministers and senior executives from the 10 member states came together for a historic ministerial roundtable to adopt the Pakse Declaration that will lead to an ASEAN roadmap for the strategic development of ecotourism clusters and tourism corridors.
While the success of the new declaration is still years away from realisation, the strides that ASEAN has made in working towards a common ecological and tourism goal bodes well for the region’s sustainable development and conservation.
The Pakse Declaration, which got its inspirations from the European Green Belt − a pan-Europe ecological network that stretches along the former Iron Curtain − also comes at an especially poignant time as the UK had just voted in a referendum to leave the EU, long held up as a model of regional integration for ASEAN.
Brexit may mark the beginning of the EU’s disintegration, but now is not the time for ASEAN to use the union’s current disarray to vindicate its gradualist approach, which often results in decision making and integration that move at snail’s pace. More than ever, ASEAN needs stronger cooperation and deeper collaboration for causes such as elimination of human trafficking, wildlife protection, human capital development, etc.
One area that certainly needs attention is intra-region connectivity, a point that was driven home during the AEF. Without daily direct flight connections between Pakse and Bangkok (where I’m based), I had to first fly to Vientiane, board a domestic flight with a stopover at Sannavakhet, before finally arriving in Pakse, a journey that took six hours by air for two cities merely 700km apart; other ASEAN delegates based outside of Laos and Thailand took closer to 10 hours to reach Pakse.
Stronger intra-region connectivity will narrow the development and tourism opportunities gaps in South-east Asia, an echoing sentiment at AEF from many industry members who are keen to promote and sell under-visited destinations like southern Laos, an area home to coffee plantations, tumbling waterfalls and ancient temples.
Brexit also provides many learning points for ASEAN (read the implications Brexit has on the Asian travel industry), one of which is that a bloc must continue to accrue benefits for all its members. After all, people only want to be part of a club for as long as it offers meaning and benefits.
South-east Asia has much unfulfilled potential in many areas, tourism included; we just need stronger vision and leadership to realise ASEAN’s aspirational goals of inclusive growth and benefits for all.