It is vital private sector players step up their game to coordinate unified tourism recovery across the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries in the wake of change at Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), say regional stakeholders.
Earlier this month, Jens Thraenhart, MTCO’s longest serving executive director, handed in his resignation, citing “personal values” as the reason for leaving his seven-year tenure.
He said: “It’s about standing up for my values and doing what I believe in. This office was formed to develop collaborative sustainable tourism across the Mekong region and we have created a very unique and powerful private-public partnership that does that. But in the current situation, it’s difficult.”
Thraenhart will continue his service during his 90-day notice period.
A special MTCO board meeting of GMS member governments will be held in April, where the six tourism ministries will decide how to move forward.
In the interim, regional tourism stakeholders say now is the time for the industry to unite and strengthen the innovative framework Thraenhart has created through MTCO; the secretariat of GMS Tourism Working Group of the six governments; and Destination Mekong, a DMO driven by the private sector; to move forward.
Willem Niemeijer, CEO of YAANA Ventures, noted: “MTCO is a powerful regional lobby and countries need to all come together as one. Stakeholders now have the chance to be part of the building back in tourism recovery. Post-Covid, regional tourism is going to be very important and discussions need to be had.”
Nick Ray, product director at Hanuman Travel, agreed, adding: “The challenge is that each country is working unilaterally. As we begin to reopen, there needs to be coordination and forward-looking countries really need to work together to promote the region.”
He added that while MTCO is driven by GMS governments, it is vital the private sector remains involved in decision-making. “It’s important that Destination Mekong carries on in tandem with MTCO – and the private sector needs to make that happen.”
Geoffrey Lipman, former WTTC president and president of International Coalition of Tourism Partners, said the region’s industry needs to seize this opportunity to strengthen.
“There is now the chance for the organisation to evolve and become much more of a public-private economy. The right components have been put in place by MTCO over the past few years, now, the private sector needs to get engaged to make Destination Mekong a sustainable regional DMO. Often, the private sector better understands the digital and travel world than governments, and they need to work together.”
Destination Mekong is also the driving force behind a series of initiatives, including award-winning Mekong Moments and Mekong Mini Movie Festival, Mekong Innovations in Sustainable Tourism (MIST), and Experience Mekong Collection and Showcases.
Thraenhart expects the majority to continue, with a tourism recovery campaign in development and a virtual internship platform slated to launch in the next few months.
With the military coup currently taking place in Myanmar, this has raised questions over how this will impact MTCO’s work promoting the region. Niemeijer said that while political distractions create a “challenge”, it is important to keep conversations flowing.
He added: “Tourism needs to remain on the table as a way to keep the international and regional community involved in Myanmar as a destination and not put it in isolation. I see this as difficult, but an opportunity for MTCO to keep Myanmar engaged.”