The last Mekong Tourism Forum hosted in Luang Prabang in Laos was a very successful edition. Over 350 delegates came to learn about the recent evolution of tourism in the Greater Mekong Sub-region and participate to decentralised theme sessions looking at various topics such as Human Resources, Culture and Heritage Protection, River Cruise, Aviation, Gastronomy, Hotel investments, Sustainable Practices in Tourism, Eco-tourism or Social Development such as women-led business.
Decentralised sessions meant that the Forum became an inclusive event as all the city of Luang Prabang turned into a venue. Each session was hosted into a different place, allowing participants to discover hotels, cruise boats, Luang Prabang botanical garden and museums or a restaurant among others. A successful operation praised by all delegates.
“Prosper with Purpose” was the main theme of this year and MTF and main sessions hosted at Luang Prabang Central Bank, the topic was about the future of the destination. Jens Thraenhart, Managing Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office unveiled the Mekong Tourism Sector Strategy as defined by the six GMS member States as well as the ADB and MTCO. The new plan will cover the time frame from 2016-2025 and look at the various way to further “open up” GMS countries. Open borders, open skies, open trade, open new land connections will help to support inclusive and sustainable tourism by spreading the benefits of tourism development into new areas, new destinations, taking out or at least softening tourism pressure on some destinations.
“The flaws of a successful tourism strategy are about tourism consumption”, explained Anna Pollock, Founder Conscious Travel and key note speaker at the MTF. “Tourism consumes resources of landscapes, culture, ecosystem, communities, people, air and water to create experiences for travellers. Sustainability is a nice word but it means what people wants it to mean. The only remedy is to delve into root causes and ask what is about the systems and patterns of behavious that is resulting in the predicament humanity finds itself in”.
The new Mekong Tourism Sector Strategy set up guiding lines for the future development of the six GMS member countries until 2025:
- Generate benefits for more than one GMS country
- Protect cultural, natural, urban and other tourism assets
- Emphasize secondary destination development and destination development along the Mekong River.
- Promote continuous service quality improvement.
- Enable safe and accessible destination development.
- Strengthen the business-enabling environment for SME.
- Disseminate consistent messages and a visual identity that communicate the Mekong brand characteristics of nature, culture and communities.
- encourage cooperation and collaboration among stakeholders.
Five Strategic Directions have been defined: Human resources; Improvement of tourism infrastructure; Enhancement of visitor experiences and services; Creative marketing and promotion; Facilitation of regional travel.
“Over the last decade, GMS countries progressed by moving closer and recognising the benefits of tourism. However, we still need to work on the notion of inclusive tourism. This means that we now need to concentrate even more on human resources for quality and to foster a culture of tourism management, which means to also look at finding the right balance for a community-respectful tourism development”, said Steven Schipani, Senior Portfolio Management Specialist for the Asia Development Bank (ADB).
” They are many laws to protect people, landscapes and cultures. However we need to monitor their enforcement”, he added.
This is probably the major challenge for all GMS countries. While all the governments recognize and talk about sustainable, inclusive tourism development, about community protection, nature conservation, the reality of tourism development looks grimmer. Many developments have been and are done in a detrimental way to nature and people while tourism boom at many destinations is affecting deeply people’s life and behaviour. “The change starts with each of us. There is no quick fix and we cannot rely on anyone else to do it for us”, stresses Anna Pollock. Also an advice for the GMS which starts to be listened as the civil society (mostly locals with the support of NGOs) is getting increasingly involved into the implementation of good practices in tourism.