If Southeast Asia is to truly be a single tourist destination, give visitors from afar a single visa to travel freely
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is undertaking a tourism marketing campaign to mark its 50th anniversary this year. It is called “Visit Asean@50: Golden Celebration” and aims at increasing the number of international arrivals by 10 per cent to 121 million, up from 109 million in 2015.
Asean is promoting the 10 member-countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as a single tourist destination of immense diversity.
The question is whether the average foreign tourist actually knows what “Asean” is, even if he’s heard of Southeast Asia. Surely the basic initial task for the policymakers behind this scheme is to make the “Asean brand” better known globally.
Next, to promote our region as a single tourist destination, all 10 member-countries will have to achieve a level of harmonious collaboration that’s usually beyond them. They will have to abandon the in-built tendency to fret that some countries will get more out of this joint effort than others will.
Southeast Asia is indeed physically and culturally diverse, so much so that collective tourism promotion might be a daunting challenge. Every country has its own unique attractions and all of these must be highlighted if the region is to benefit as a whole.
Thanks to all the wonderful sights and experiences on offer here, tourism is a massive revenue earner for Southeast Asia. More than in any other region of the world, Asean’s 10 countries depend on tourism (to varying degrees) to fuel their economic engines, says the World Travel and Tourism Council. It reckons tourism contributed 12.4 per cent of the region’s gross domestic product in 2015, when 109 million foreigners came to visit.
Compared to other industries, tourism requires little government investment to sustain it. However, the governments of our region will have to help facilitate growth in this sector by easing visa restrictions, deregulating the skies, and building the required infrastructure. Member-nations should consider adopting a common visa to make it easier for foreigners to travel around the region. It is far from practical to queue at 10 different embassies for 10 different visas, as would be the case currently. Such restrictions constitute a major deterrent for people to visit from outside the region.
With travel better facilitated, Asean could draw 6 million to 10 million additional tourists from overseas, the World Tourism Organisation and World Tourism and Travel Council estimate. That translates to US$12 billion (Bt420 billion) in additional revenue, as well as 333,000 to 654,000 new jobs for residents.
The Visit Asean@50 campaign could be a clever model for future group efforts in promoting tourism within the region. At the same time, it would be nice to see Asean leaders encouraging their citizens to visit neighbouring countries. At present, 46 per cent of tourists in Southeast Asia come from Southeast Asia. Another 30 per cent arrive from elsewhere in Asia.
Southeast Asia has a population of 625 million, about 9 per cent of the global total, and yet its 10 nations collectively constitute the world’s third-largest market for tourism. Growing affluence and an expanding middle class with greater purchasing power – forecast by market research firm Nielsen to reach 400 million in number by 2020, up from 190 million in 2012 – place Southeast Asia in a position to welcome more domestic visitors, offer them more and benefit more.
As well as growing the tourism industry, the anniversary promotion should get more Southeast Asians touring their home region, thereby bolstering each country’s economy and strengthening ties among us. Tourism can be the glue that binds us, leading to greater cooperation in other areas of mutual interest in the future.