The 2016 Mekong Tourism Forum was hosted by Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism at the Sokha Beach Hotel in Sihanoukville in early July, under the theme, “Authentic experiences along the Mekong River. The tourism event showcased emerging tourist destinations and authentic experiences as well as trends in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS).

The six member countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion have banded together to jointly promote sub-regional tourism product development, market the GMS as a single travel destination, and stage the annual Mekong Tourism Forum. The Forum is the event of the year for travel industry professionals dedicated to putting the GMS on the global travel map.

Tourism leaders from the public and private sectors and regional development partners attended the Forum as it was ideal for travel industry stakeholders who are serious about developing the region’s cross-border potential. Business and government leaders assessed the latest tourism developments and investment opportunities along the regional road networks linking Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam and the China’s provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi.

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“We are in a pivotal time when developing authentic tourism experiences along the Mekong River can set the GMS apart from other tourism destinations,” said H.E. Dr. Thong Kong, Minister of Tourism of Cambodia.

“The desire of today’s travellers of having an authentic, cultural experience is what is driving much of this growth, and it is the richness of our collective cultures that will be the foundation of our tourism sector in the future.

"Today when tourists visit a destination they are no longer just seeking relaxation on a beach. Today’s tourists are seeking meaningful experiences that connect them with local cultures and places. But these experiences must be authentic, and genuine to be successful.

“While growth in tourism arrivals, trips and revenues are all desirable goals, we must ensure that this development is sustainable, and brings out the very best that our region has to offer in terms of our heritage, culture, and people.

“Bringing tourism experiences closer to local cultures also presents tremendous opportunities for generating local income and conserving local customs and lifestyles. Indeed, by focusing on developing authentic tourism products and experiences we are addressing the demands of the modern current travel market while providing socio-economic development opportunities for local people as well as preserving and enriching local customs and cultures.”

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High profile speakers included Mr. Willem Niejmeijer, Chairman of Khiri Travel Group and Yaana Ventures; Mr. Luzi Matzig, Chairman of Asian Trails; Captain Worante Laprabang, CEO of Thai Smile Airways, Mr. Randy Durband, CEO of Global Sustainability Tourism Council; Mr. Rory Hunter, Founder and CEO of Song Saa Hotels & Resorts; Mr. John Roberts, Global Conservation Director of Anantara Resorts & Spas; Mr. Inthy Deansavan, Managing Director of Green Discovery Laos; and Dr. Ashley Brooks of the WWF Tigers Alive Initiative, and Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings, to name just a few.

One of the highlights was the Mekong Tourism Open Forum, led by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which saw the travel and tourism industry to brainstorm on the next 10-year GMS Tourism Sector Strategy. A lot has changed in the past ten years including the opening of Myanmar as a thriving tourism destination, increased air and land connectivity, as well as the internet, social media, mobile, and the sharing economy driving a changing consumer landscape.

“We focused on authentic experiences in a time where consumers are looking to connect with local communities, go off the beaten path to get away from mass tourist attractions, “said Mr. Tith Chanta, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Tourism Cambodia.

Opportunities and threats were analyzed against a backdrop of growth. “Tourism demand for Mekong region destinations is storming ahead,” said Mr. Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office in Bangkok. “We need to work together to make sure development is fair and sustainable and that we remove obstacles to growth and poverty alleviation.”

Professor Geoffrey Lipman, former Assistant Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and founding President of the World Travel Tourism Council (WTTC) traveled from Belgium to address the delegates and open the forum with a thought-provoking message by framing authenticity in the context of sustainability.
Professor Lipman, who has been active in tourism by pushing policies over the past decades in lobbying for sustainable and responsible development, underscored that without a Green Growth Strategy that encompasses the Paris 2050 Climate Resilience framework and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals even the most authentic experiences, products and destinations will be under severe threat.

Lipman said, “Climate Change is existential, repeat existential and if we don’t fix it in perhaps the most water dependent region in the world, we can stop thinking about authentic tourism and start focusing on survival.” He discussed how his SUN program will help destinations and their stakeholders get a better handle on these dynamically evolving fundamental transformations.

La Plantation Pepper Plantation eh

Next up was James Dion, Sustainable Tourism Program Manager at National Geographic, Maps Division, who used case studies from destinations from all over the world where communities have enabled travelers to experience local culture by being responsible at the same time.

Mr. Dion said: “Today when tourists visit a destination they are no longer just seeking relaxation on a beach. Today’s tourists are seeking meaningful experiences that connect them with local cultures and places. But these experiences must be authentic, genuine to be successful, and showcased online to tell the stories of the destination. This fragmented mosaic of experiences in itself creates the real brand perception of the destination.”

He noted that the most significant, systemic rend in worldwide tourism today is the demand for “experiential travel” typically meant to convey the idea of more immersive, local, authentic, adventurous and/or active travel. When travelers engage with locals, they’re creating their own personal experience leading to new discoveries. Our most cherished travel memories often revolve around the people we meet and moments of serendipitous fortune. Social media is much more than a marketing tool. It is a wholly integrated part of the travel experience, with infinite possibilities to engage consumers and locals, and create along the unexpected moments journey. The Mekong Region is made up of a mosaic of micro experiences, that when curated, collected and showcased, can define the brand positioning of the region and shape the perception, which may motivate consumers to experience the destination.

The Mekong Region offers a vast range of authentic experiences, many of which may involve children or animals, both of which are especially vulnerable to potential exploitation in the tourist industry. To ensure our encounters with these groups remain inspiring and mutually beneficial for generations to come, the tourism industry bear a special responsibility for helping to protect children and wildlife.

To shed light on these issues, award-winning travel writer and ex-Lonely Planet author of 25 years, Joe Cummings then led an expert panel comprised of WWF and Anantara, as well as Aple Cambodia and Friends International.

Having explored the Mekong Region for the past four decades, Mr. Cummings has witnessed the change the region has undergone, resulting in both positive and negative impacts Cummings said, “Although regional advances in both human and animal rights have been made over the years, the job is never finished, and new challenges continually arise.”

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Protecting the cultural heritage of the region, including children and wildlife sometimes gets forgotten in the midst of frantic development, which in some ways may alleviate poverty and bring progress, while on the other hand may destroy some of the assets that make the region unique and create authentic experiences – which in return bring tourism money to the GMS. Once travelers no longer perceive these assets as authentic and unique, tourism numbers may decline, resulting in severe economic issues.

Dr. Ashley Brooks of the Tigers Alive Initiative at WWF, which is based in Cambodia, and Mr. John Roberts of the Elephant Camp at the Anantara Resort & Spa in Chiang Rai discussed the sector’s role in protecting wildlife, while Mr. James Sutherland of social enterprise Friends International and Mr. Seila Samlaeng of NGO Aple Cambodia covered tourism’s responsibility to protect children.

As identified in consumer trends reports, including the 2015-2020 Experience Mekong Tourism Marketing Strategy & Action Plan, travelers today want to connect with local communities, go off the beaten path, experience the culture from food to heritage. Today’s travelers also want to be conscious by protecting the environment, and responsible in the way they travel. According to a recent Expedia survey, 76% of baby boomers rate experiencing authentic local culture as “the most important” aspect of their decision making, while 62% of Generation X consumers rate local culture most important.

Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) said: “While the Greater Mekong Subregion is blessed with a wealth of travel experiences, we need to constantly remind ourselves that mismanagement of tourism development may create an imbalance which in effect can destroy the very reason travelers choose to experience the Mekong Region as a tourist destination.

“Travelers want to be able to truly experience the country that they are visiting, and come away with a true appreciation of the local experience. In short, the average tourist no longer wants to feel like a tourist. It’s about participatory travel in a local culture and much more than just seeing the expected sights. Like they’ll fly to Hanoi to try Vietnamese street-food. Or they’re going to Bangkok, and it’s not about seeing the Grand Palace. It’s about learning how to make homemade Som Tam, Mussaman Curry, and Pad Thai.”

A regional expert panel explored and debated the case of authentic experiences in the GMS, from product development challenges and opportunities to consumer trends and storytelling. Willem Niemeijer of Yaana Ventures and Khiri Travel will facilitate the discussions with Inthy Deuansavan of Green Discovery Laos, Michael Zhou of Dynasty Travel China, Phyoe Wai Yar Zar of All Inclusive Asia Myanmar, Rory Hunter of Song Saa on Koh Rong Island, and Sokun Chanpreda of Shinta Mani Siem Reap.
River-based tourism along the Mekong is an emerging activity with significant potential for growth and impact on people’s livelihoods, and closely aligned with this year’s theme of “Authentic Experiences along the Mekong River”.

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Following up from last year’s UNWTO River and Ocean Cruise Tourism workshop, held at the 2015 Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF) in Da Nang, Vietnam, and sponsored by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), the session provided an overview of river- and ocean-based tourism in the region and highlighted the current challenges and strategies in terms of infrastructure, key routes, source markets, and market access.

The recently published UNWTO Mekong River-based Tourism Product Development Report, authored by Peter Semone, and produced in collaboration with ASEAN and VNAT in partnership with MTCO, deliberately aligns with the Mekong Tourism Marketing Strategy 2015-2020, and the ASEAN member countries’ shared objectives to develop river cruising as outlined in the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2011-2015 and ASEAN Tourism Marketing Strategy 2012-2015.

The study focuses on Mekong River-based tourism product development by reviewing the current situation and existing river-based activities, itineraries and river- based tourism products in the Mekong area. Strategically, the report makes several recommendations in areas related to planning, policy, product development, sustainability, public-private partnerships, safety, and security with the main identified objectives being to: protect the natural environment; broaden the concept of river-based tourism beyond high-end luxury cruising and sightseeing activities to include a wider range of land- based cultural or nature based activities; and invest in concepts and tourism products that better merge water and land based activities along rivers in ASEAN.

The presentation summarized the key highlights and strategic recommendations of the report. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion with cruise operators including John Boyd of Pandaw Cruises and Maarten Perdok of Heritage Line. It is hoped that this report will support further product development and assist the public and private sectors in planning and expanding the breadth river-based tourism activities along the Mekong River.

Later in the afternoon, Sarah Schwepcke from the German Development Organization GIZ introduced the Destination Mutual Benefit Program, which puts these ideas into action presenting “lessons learned” from tourism companies that have made their business more experiential yet more inclusive and sustainable.

On the second day, the Mekong Tourism Investment Summit returned with Dr. Watcharas Leelawath, Executive Director of the Mekong Institute, giving an overview of the investment climate in the GMS, followed by separate panels on infrastructure, aviation, and hotel development.

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The infrastructure panel was led by Dr Leelawath, with representatives from the GMS member countries, including Mr. Thourn Sinan (CEO, B2B Travel – Cambodia), and Mr. Luzi Matzig (CEO, Asian Trails, Thailand). Issues discussed included visa regulations; border crossing changes, airport developments, and new policies and incentives for the tourism sector.
The hotel investment panel, moderated by Paola Ornelli-Bock, Vice President at HVS, had a Cambodia focus, and discussed investment opportunities and challenges for investors, operators, and brands in the region. The panel featured Mr. Rory Hunter of Song Saa Island, and Mr. Sokun Chanpreda of Shinta Mani, two of the most recognized properties in Cambodia, and Mr. John Kaplan of the Minor Group and Mr. Vishal Daga of Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

The aviation panel, moderated by long-time GMS expert Mr. Don Ross, Editor of TTR Weekly, focused on air access in the region to develop secondary destinations. Airlines were represented by Ms. Desiree Bandall from Air Asia, Mr. Peter Wiesner from Bangkok Airways, and Captain Woranate Laprabang from Thai Smile.

Mr. Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Mr. Eric Ricaurte, CEO of Greenview addressed the delegates respectively by aligning investment and development to sustainable practices to promote authentic experiences.

The afternoon was all about food as Jens Thraenhart introduced the MTC’s first Food Tourism Seminar. Jens said the countries in the Mekong offer some of the most fragrant cuisines in the world, noting that gastronomy has turned into a serious activity. As governments recognize cooking as a national cultural asset, national dishes have been promoted in each GMS country. This has also fostered a new mindset in the private sector: talented chefs are offering specialties in high-class restaurants, cooking courses are offered to travelers, and programs are also in place earmarking national dishes and restaurants that promote national dishes.

Professor Walter Jamieson, Director of the Service Innovation Program at the College of Innovation at Thammasat University then gave a talk on food tourism noting that it has grown considerably and become one of the most dynamic and creative segments of the tourism. He said both destinations and tourism companies are aware of the importance of gastronomy in order to diversify tourism and stimulate local, regional and national economic development. Food tourism also includes in its discourse ethical and sustainable values based on the territory, the landscape, the sea, local cultures & products, & authenticity, which is something it has in common with the cultural trends of cultural consumption.

Luu Meng, the COO of the Almond Group and Cambodia’s only Master Chef followed up, discussing “Food as a Tourism Experience” giving the audience an insight into how his experience has given him opportunities to bring Khmer culture to the world inspiring travelers via authentic food experiences.

Closing out the MTF was a panel entitled “Leveraging Food to Position the GMS”, which was moderated by Professor Jamieson: panelists included Luu Meng and Sinouk Sisombath, founder of the Laotian Sinouk Coffee. The Mekong region couldn’t be better placed to satisfy the need and position the region as a multi-country, must-visit tourism destination. Especially since tourism and agriculture are vital pillars of the region’s economy, from local street food to rising celebrity chefs, rom bustling markets to picturesque rice fields. Against this background, food tourism has gained increased attention. Tourists are attracted to local produce and many destinations are centering their product development and marketing accordingly.

With food so deeply connected to its origin, this allows the GMS to market itself as truly unique, appealing to those travelers who look to feel part of the destination through its flavors.

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