Interview – Devinder Ohri, Vice President ASEANTA, Asean Tourism Association and President Of NATAS, National Association Of Travel Agents Singapore

Is 2015 turning into a challenging year for ASEAN due to economic uncertainties?

Devinder Ohri- I have to admit that 2014 was a rather challenging year with political turmoil in Thailand and the tragedy surrounding Malaysia Airlines aircraft and the AirAsia accident in Indonesia. By comparison, 2015 looks not that bad for ASEANTA members. Of course, the recent bomb in Bangkok might temporarily soften the market but we have confidence in the ability of Thailand to bounce back. We in fact decided as a show of solidarity to host our annual meeting in Bangkok, a way to express our support and confidence. At ASEANTA we are fully conscious that we are growing today as an ASEAN community. And an event that can affect one country can have a ripple effect as our economies are getting increasingly intertwined.

The coming ASEAN Economic Community makes then plenty of sense for ASEANTA? 

D.O.- AEC expresses an economic reality showing that the destiny of all ASEAN members is linked to each other. We already see it in the field of transport and tourism. Today overseas travellers do not visit anymore just one country but two or three in a row. I would say that those travellers on a multi-country journey probably represent now half of all the tourists in the region. We experienced this phenomenon last year at least twice: Cambodia and Laos tourist arrivals slowing down due to political turbulences in Bangkok; and following the vanishing of MH aircraft, we saw the disappearance of the Chinese inbound market which affected not only Malaysia but also Singapore. A negative impact in ASEAN does not affect anymore one single country.

Do you think that ASEAN already succeeded to impose its mark on world tourism? 

D.O.- ASEAN is over all a political term while travellers generally talk better about Southeast Asia. ASEAN exists already as a reality in the travel world. Already 50% of all travellers movement today qualify as intra-ASEAN journeys. But there is still a way to improvement from the ASEAN itself. There is not enough efforts made to promote the brand ASEAN as a destination. I know that it is a long run and that we are still doing “baby steps” to achieve this unified image. But this is a challenge and I think that national tourism authorities which belong to ASEAN should now move into promoting more their common assets than just going their own way. It will then help highlighting ASEAN incredible diversity of communities, cultures and landscapes. Each country must first stress its particularity At the end this will give a stronger more attractive image of ASEAN.

ASEAN as a single entity will then take more time?

D.O.- I believe so as they still will be challenges and obstacles after the AEC implementation at the end of December. I think that an important next step will be the 50th anniversary of ASEAN creation in 2017. By then we should have achieved most of the objectives fixed by the AEC.

Is ASEANTA an influential association ?

D.O.- We are an association which is completely run by the private sector. I am not sure that we really have an influence on public institutions –although we welcome in our association most of the National Tourism authorities. However we cooperate and talk to each other to see where our expertise can also be leveraged to promote better ASEAN. We also are active to implement common ASEAN quality standards such as in the hotel industry or employment qualification. We are now recognized as a force to reckon with and to talk to. In fact, we are now systematically invited to participate at the high level meetings of tourism ministers and heads of NTOs during the ASEAN Travel Forum.

What could be for you the biggest ASEAN achievement? 

D.O.- This will in fact to have a truly single market where borders for example will be easy to cross without all the current hassle that we can experience. For example, this would translate into a closer cooperation between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia, both cities being then able to work common promotion and tourism strategies as borders would be easier to cross for visitors and locals…

Photo: Devinder Ohri with ASEANTA President Aileen C. Clemente in Bangkok.