CLMVT: A Greater Mekong Sub-Region Without China ?

Tourism authorities during the Thailand Travel Mart (TTM+) in Chiang Mai presented the tourism development action plan within the new CLMVT (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand) grouping. Is the newly called association just a way to counter Chinese influence in the region?

There was ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), GMS (Greater Mekong Sub-region) and now the CLMVT, a new entity grouping five of the Mekong countries- Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Why the necessity to have this new grouping with ASEAN and GMS already supposed to take at best the interests of the five participating  nations?

« We felt the necessity to work closer together in a more flexible way, face to face, without being necessarily represented by an outside organisation such as a secretariat. We want to move quicker to improve our tourism connectivity and cooperation. W want to achieve our strategic goaal quicker and in a short-term», highlighted at a press conference Yuthasak Supasorn, Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The smaller-scale grouping is then due to speed up its integration in the field of tourism, one of the identified activities to boost growth in the region. Other economic activities being seen as CLMVT growth opportunities are trade, transportation or investments. In the tourism group, eight points have been identified with one of the CLMVT members taking the lead.

Public Private Partnerships, Common marketing, common tour packages and connectivity, common tourism standards are some of the tasks of the group. « Accessibility and connectivity will be the key to our group’s success », added Mr. Supasorn.

It could then start maybe by unifying border crossing checkpoints to offer standardized procedures and facilities as land infrastructure improve year after year.

« I admit that we still need to work on this issue and improve borders’ management », said Ms Manisakhone Thammavongxay, Director of the public relations division at Laos Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. A common visa ? For the five personalities present at the press briefing, it would come from ASEAN rather than from CLMVT. « We progress year after year and I am sure that a single visa might come out in a year or two time, much similar to what does exist for the Schengen area in the European Union », told TAT Governor.

« We also make progress in air connectivity as we currently experience a boost of new air connections, not only between regional capitals but also between second-tier cities such as new flights from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Bangkok and Danang or Bangkok and Vinh », told the Governor of TAT. Improved boat and rail connections would also be part of the agenda, indicated Mr. Try Chhiv, Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Tourism in Cambodia.

In the marketing field, ClMTV will be present in major events. « We certainly could exhibit together under the single CLMVT brand starting with ITB Singapore or ITB Berlin », indicated Mr. Supasorn. Marketing initiatives would then strengthen the idea of « Five Countries-One Destination ».

Ambitions of the grouping are then big although no one during the press conference dared to give a budget for tourism. « We all should contribute equally to make CLMTV a concrete reality », added TAT Governor.

Still a question remains : why is there today a need for a new grouping ? The CLMVT countries are all represented within the Greater Mekong Sub-region with a Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office already structuring countries efforts to develop and market tourism while the Asia Development Bank has been providing loans and assistance for infrastructure development ? What about ASEAN, which started to move into a single ASEAN Economic Community ?

CLMVT members do not deny the existence of the two organisations. While they seem to praise ASEAN and see themselves as only a working group of the Upper ASEAN region, they probably will collude more with the GMS.

China is excluded from the new grouping, a possible way to reduce the growing (Financial) influence that China leverages on Mekong countries. Cambodia and Laos have benefits greatly from Chinese Financial generosity until today and both countries show in return their unconditional support to their powerful northern neighbour. Step by step, China has replaced Thailand, which used to be the dominant economic driving force in the Mekong area 20 years ago.

CLMVT seems to be fully backed, supported by Thai authorities who certainly mulled out the option. The hosting of the first CLMVT forum with the announced participation  of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan o-cha will take place this week in Bangkok. Beyond the new grouping, it might finally be all about games of influence between a regional and a world power…