They are young, ambitious and share a common passion to improve the ASEAN travel industry with their forward-thinking ideas and leadership. We round up the region’s 10 promising talents to watch out for
Founder, Sapa O’chau, Vietnam
Born in the remote village of Lao Chai in Sapa, Shu Tan endured a tough childhood, selling handicrafts on the streets at age 13.
With poverty high and education low in the isolated area, Shu dreamt that she would one day be able to improve the lives of her fellow villagers and neighbouring communities.
Hailing from the Black Hmong hill tribe – an ethnic minority group that is prevalent in Vietnam’s mountainous north-west – in 2009, Shu opened the first ethnic minority owned homestay in her village with the help of some Australian friends.
As Sapa’s popularity with visitors grew, she seized the opportunity and expanded her social enterprise, Sapa O’Chau, to include a café, handicraft store and more homestays.
In 2013, she launched the country’s first ethnic minority-owned international tour operator, Sapa O’Chau Travel, providing customised treks and tours in the area – all led by locals. It secured its international tour license in September 2013.
Fulfilling her ambition, the 29-year-old uses funds from Sapa O’Chau to pay for a school to provide education to the area’s most impoverished children, and she trains and employs locals to be tour guides, as well as work in other tourism-related roles, providing sustainable employment for the community.
In 2016, she became the first woman to feature in Forbes Vietnam’s “30 under 30” list. – Marissa Carruthers
Founder, Discover the Mekong, Cambodia
Kimhean Pich traded in life as a fisherman to tap into Cambodia’s fledgling tourism industry.
The oldest of eight siblings, the 35-year-old was born into a fishing family in a floating village in Kampong Khleang in Siem Reap Province.
When Kimhean was 13, his father decided a good education was vital for the family’s future and they moved to Takhmao, 12km from the capital of Phnom Penh.
Kimhean went on to secure a scholarship in management at the National Institute of Management, specialising in tourism.
After graduating in 2003, Kimhean’s career in tourism was launched when he started working with a Japanese travel company in Siem Reap. He spent almost four years as operations assistant before being recruited by another international tour operator in 2006.
In 2011, using his self-taught IT skills, he started creating a bespoke tourism B2B customer relationship management system to provide clients with a tool to easily manage data, such as itineraries, quotes and campaign management, with the aim of launching his own tour company.
Two years later, he used his industry knowledge and experience to open DMC, Discover the Mekong, of which he remains CEO today. Future plans include expanding into neighbouring countries. – Marissa Carruthers
Mona Abdul Manap
Founder and managing director, Place Borneo, Malaysia
Only 32, Mona is nothing short of a smart business woman with the acumen to identify opportunities and the grit to act on them. Case in point, she founded Place Borneo in 2016 when she noticed that there was no PCO in Sarawak.
Driven by a vision to organise highly personalised events for her clients, her company proved to be a successful venture with three major events held last year.
This year, the company expanded its offices to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu.Mona said: “Many of our clients – associations and universities – are in Kuala Lumpur, so it makes sense to open an office (there).
“We also see business events potential in Sabah, which has no local PCO and will have two convention centres opening next year.”
Mona also has her sights set on further expansion in South-east Asia.
The young boss firmly believes in treating her staff as equals and avoids micromanaging. She explained: “I believe in giving them a voice in the decision-making process. This creates a sense of ownership and enhances dedication to their projects.”
She often gets together with her team for excursions and dinners to foster a stronger team spirit. It’s no surprise that Mona’s original team is still with her, as the staff strength expands from six to 10. – S Puvaneswary
Min Than Htut
Founder, Pro Niti Travel, Myanmar
Min Than Htut is one of Myanmar’s millennials to ride the new tourism wave sweeping across the country.
The 27-year-old grew up in Yangon and it was while he was studying for a degree in chemistry at the University of East Yangon that he was first introduced to the tourism industry, which was starting to open up in his homeland.
He first worked as a bellboy at a hotel in the city, but soon found himself employed at a travel agency, where he stepped into the shoes of receptionist and operator, piquing his interest in tourism.
He went on to become a freelance tourist guide and operator, enjoying the work so much that he decided to launch his own company in 2012, Pro Niti Travel.
The same year, he enrolled in a one-year course, gained a diploma in tourism studies and management, and received his tourist license.
He started building up his reputation by offering advice about the country on travel website forums, which led to him securing his first clients.
He now offers a range of tours, as well as customised options, across Myanmar. – Marissa Carruthers
Managing director, Haranah Tours, Philippines
Jasmine Tan’s introduction to the travel trade came early in her life, having grown up around her family-owned Haranah Tours and accompanied her father on business trips during her high school years.
After graduating from university at 20, she became deputy managing director of Haranah Tours. A year later, after passing the board exam for certified public accountants, she was promoted to managing director with a focus on product development.
When Haranah was formed in 1998, it was doing mainly domestic tourism with a fleet of buses. Under Tan’s helm, it has expanded into inbound and outbound sectors.
She is also in charge of marketing the family’s newly opened 16ha Haranah Eco Park, a venue in Tanay, Rizal, for business events and FITs seeking quiet and relaxation.
These developments keep Tan on her toes in marketing the products and meeting buyers, and she is an active member of the Philippine Tour Operators Association.
She said people have grown more accepting of the idea that the younger generation can make bigger decisions. But she remarked: “There’s still a lot that I don’t know. It’s still a learning process.” – Rosa Ocampo
Commissioner and director, Elok Tour, Indonesia
At 40, Pauline Suharno heads the company built by her parents as commissioner and director, and has gone above and beyond to better Indonesia’s travel business through her involvement in various travel-related associations.
Working her way up from operational roles (tour and ticketing) not only gave her valuable professional experience, but also first-hand understanding of the needs of industry members, which set her up to be an exemplary leader in local associations.
Her organisational career started in 2008 when she became the coordinator of the National Board of the Indonesia Air Ticketing Company Association (ASTINDO), and of the Association of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies Jakarta Chapter.
She demonstrated her capability and dedication to the trade when she co-founded the Indonesia Tour Leaders’ Association and took part in a trainer programme, even getting accredited as an assessor of the Indonesian Professional Certification Authority. She is now head of the Professional Certification Body of Air Transport Distribution Services & Agencies.
Pauline took on a more active role at the regional level after becoming a board member of the Federation of ASEAN Travel Association (FATA) representing ASTINDO in 2011. Currently, she also holds the position of secretary general of ASTINDO National Board. – Mimi Hudoyo
Wee Teng Wen
Co-founder, The Lo & Behold Group, Singapore
As co-founder of hospitality company, The Lo & Behold Group, Wee Teng Wen has adroitly contributed to Singapore’s lifestyle landscape with cutting-edge concepts.
The group is behind trendy establishments including Loof, Singapore’s first stand-alone rooftop bar; OverEasy, an American-style diner; The White Rabbit, a fine dining restaurant in a converted chapel; and Tanjong Beach Club, a beach restaurant and bar.
For The Lo & Behold Group’s contribution to Singapore’s F&B and tourism landscape in the past decade, Wee, together with co-founder Daniel He, received the Outstanding Tourism Entrepreneur award from the Singapore Tourism Board this year.
And it is not stopping just yet. Making its first foray into the hotel space, the group opened The Warehouse Hotel, a 37-room luxury boutique property at Singapore’s Robertson Quay, in January 2017.
The 36-year-old Wee hopes to fill a niche “somewhere between big brands and small boutiques”. He added: “The market was missing a portal to local culture with depth and soul that would still over deliver on comfort and the basics.” – Paige Lee Pei Qi
Noor M Ismail
Head of sales & marketing (inbound), Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel, Malaysia
Noor M Ismail has come a long way in the inbound tourism business since starting his career in 2001, driven by his astute thinking, diligence and willingness to go against the grain while serving in one of Malaysia’s oldest and biggest tour operators.
As head of sales and marketing today, the 34-year-old oversees all the company’s leisure segments from around the world. His achievements include winning a number of key European accounts for the company.
He attributes his success to understanding what the market is looking for, being quick with follow-ups, and his ability to propose new and exciting programmes.
He said: “I am never afraid to break traditional practices and create fresh ideas. Some may not work, but I am happy that I have tried. I have learnt a lot from the seniors and my boss especially, they are like vitamins that keep you healthy!”
Managing director of Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel, Yap Sook Ling, had this to add about Noor: “Noor was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth; in fact, it was the contrary. But he refused to be beaten down in the ‘school of hard knocks’ and came out better, outshining many of his peers. He is definitely a millennial who smashes the stereotypes of his generation.” – S Puvaneswary
President director, Dafam, Indonesia
Billy Dahlan changed the Dafam story when he realised his vision of transforming what was initially a hotel division in the Dahlan-family business into a holding company.
He became Dafam’s president director when the company was established in 2010. Today, the 35-year-old continues to spearhead the company, which has grown to comprise real estate, hotel operator, lifestyle and entertainment business.
Dafamland owns five hotels, three residential estates, four commercial building and 48 family assets; while Dafam Hotel Management manages 38 hotels across Indonesia.
Through Varuna Entertainment, Dahlan owns and manages 17 outlets including restaurants, bars, KTVs and health clubs.
Billy has been an active board member of the Indonesian Young Entrepreneur Association, Central Java Chapter, since 2015 and now also holds the position of head of small and medium size businesses and cooperatives.
He is also a member of the Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Central Java Chapter, sitting in the permanent committee for tourism development. – Mimi Hudoyo
Managing director, Love Island, Thailand
With his social media savvy, ambition and a ‘can-do’ attitude, Torpong Wongsathienchai has blazed a trail of firsts for Love Island since founding it seven years ago.
The 34 year-old chief made social networks the core communication strategy for his tour company, branded Love Andaman. Its Facebook follower count is currently at a whopping 1.1 million people, said to be the highest among its competition in the country.
The secret, Torpong said, is consistency of updates, a friendly personal touch in its communications, and encouraging customers to share photos and content.
On top of being the first to own aluminium speedboats among its fleet of 22 vessels, Love Andaman also successfully pioneered ecotourism to Koh Tachai (part of Mu Ko Similan National Park), and was nominated the model of Eco Tourism by Thailand’s National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.
Torpong is an active contributor in the industry, having been a guest speaker at universities, as well as Phuket and Phang Nga’s tourism associations.
With sights on getting the company listed on Thailand’s stock market in the next few years, he plans to develop more new destinations, improve the company’s back office and IT systems, as well as train employees. – Siriarpa Kamjan