United we stand

We normally think of Asean- the Association of South EastAsian Nations-as a weak federation. Certainly it is so compared to the EuropeanUnion. The latter may have its problems, but at least it has achieved, ingeneral, the free flow of goods and services and in large part, monetary union.Still, there are many positive aspects of cooperation between the ten memberstates, and among them, a highly competitive world trading bloc is evolving.Vietnam Heritage Magazine is proud to have been involved in its Tourism Forum,the latest edition of which took place in Manila in January, and in which ourEditor in Chief, Madame Le Thanh Hai, took part as a delegate. We were therealong with giants such the BBC and CNN, Trip Advisor and the various nationaland regional tourism Boards.

All the Asean countries have a multitude of delights tooffer for the tourist dollar. Fine hot sunny weather and beaches is a top draw.Then there is the warmth of the people, and discovering their customs, dancesand festivals. The easy chance to enjoy delicious food and exotic fruits arealso high on the list. Most countries have cooler mountain resorts, great rivertrips and mysterious jungles to explore. Tourism gives a country an incentiveto conserve nature, although, sadly, there have been failures to keep some ofthe animal life of the region which people come to see. For the history buff,there are intriguing ruins and ancient cities to explore. Actually, thesecountries have just about it all, except perhaps for a skiing holiday, and eventhat could be arranged at Singapore's 'Snow World'! The intense competitionbetween the Asean nations can benefit the tourist. For example, Vietnam lastyear lifted visa requirements for people from four key tourism markets.

Tourism Ministers of Asean countries at the closing ceremonyof the ATF 2016. Photo: Le Thanh Hai

Country by country

Let us begin with our home country, Vietnam. In the centralHighlands and the Northern parts, rural landscapes and ethnic culture are themain attractions. Sea tourism and culture are the lures, not surprisingly, incoastal areas. Ho Chi Minh City and environs are tops for a city break and theM. I. C. E. market. Finally, the Mekong Delta is favoured for its riveradventures.

The forum introduced the main travel events forthcoming inVietnam for 2016. Firstly, from 14 until 17 April in Hanoi. “The VietnamInternational Travel Market” will take place. Then there will be the 'HueFestival' from April the 20th until May the 4th. In Danang from June 24-26, youcan see the' Beach, Leisure and M.I.C.E. Travel Mart'. Later in the year comes'The 12th International Travel Exhibition' in H C.M.C from 8-10 September andthe 5th International Beach Games in Danang from 24th September until 2ndOctober. 2016 will also be 'Visit the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island' year.

The Philippines was keen to promote two particular areas.Firstly, Bohol in the central Visayan Islands got promotion for its scenery,especially the green Chocolate Hills and its wildlife as the home of thecute-eyed Philippines tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates. Theopening of the new Panglao Island International airport in 2017 will be ofspecial interest to the diving community.

The tiny island state of Singapore provides a shiningexample of how to draw in visitors even though you lack natural attractions. Ithas an open door policy, with very few countries needing an entry visa. TheVietnamese in 2015 were in the top ten visiting nationalities. As a large entryport, it has world-class shopping and the ethnic diversity of its peopleensures a place as a culinary mecca. Then there are its manmade attractions,such as the zoo with its stupendous night safari and the innovative F1Singapore Grand Prix, to name but two.

Another small country is oil-rich Brunei. It has beaches,jungle adventures and the culture of five ethnic minorities on offer. However,it had only 200,000 foreign arrivals by air in 2014. It announced that the19-mile road bridge linking the main part of the country across the sea to thedetached Temburong district will open in mid-2016. As this is alreadyaccessible by a rather scenic ferry ride or by road through Malaysian territoryit will bring little benefit to the tourist.

The Malaysia presentation revealed some secrets for success.Firstly, it advertises its wonders incessantly, as anyone who watches satelliteT.V. will know. Then, it is extremely well-connected globally by air with eightyforeign cities served directly. Communications are modern and well-developed.It offers all the best that Asia has with great diversity of culture andattractions and it is 'Truly Asia'. Malaysia portrays itself as a safe andvalue for money destination. I have visited several times and can testify thatall of this is true. I have particularly fond memories of its hill stations ofFraser Hill and the Genting Highlands and also the island of Penang for itshistory and nature as well as its street food-ranked third in the world byVirtual Tourist.com. There is news, too, of a proposed high-speed rail linkbetween Kuala Lumpur and Singapore-the first in Asean.

Myanmar (Burma) in the past has been tough for the tourist.Firstly, visas were hard to come by for anything but a short trip and then themilitary regime put many of us off a visit. All that has changed with 'Lonely Planet' voting it the world's toptourist destination in 2014. The new government has prioritised the developmentof the tourism industry. This large country with one hundred and thirty threeethnic groups has great cultural diversity. There are stupendous golden templecomplexes starting with Schwedagon in the capital Yangon. There are amazingcave systems some housing ancient temples and idyllic beaches on the westerncoastline. Myanmar even has snowcapped mountain ranges.

Another large country to explore is Indonesia with its 300ethnicities, 750 languages and dialects and 13 thousand islands. It has thefourth largest population in the world. In the last few years a lot has beendone to make entry into Indonesia easier. Asean countries and a few others aretotally free and a further seventy five others can enter visa free for up toseventy five days at certain airports and harbours. This has done a lot toenable it hit the target of ten million visitors in 2015. The twenty-millionmark is hoped to be reached within the next decade.

Thailand now attracts 29 million visitors a year. Thailandexcels in many areas of hospitality from beaches to historical and religiousmonuments to ecotourism, wildlife and scenery. It is also hot on cuisine (punintended). It succeeds where some others are failing in getting repeatvisitors. Who does not love Thailand? But Ms Kokarn Watttangrankul, governor ofthe Thai Tourism, had some noble thoughts to share. "It is not just aboutfigures, building friendship is more important". "Her words reflectthe strong Thai commitment to build peace and to connect the hearts and mindsof the Asean peoples commented the website Travel Daily News Asia.

On to the neighbours and Cambodia, which styles itself asthe 'Kingdom of Wonder'. Not surprisingly, Vietnamese are the people who mostvisit here with the Chinese a distant second. The two biggest draws are a citybreak in Phnom Penh with its rich culture and architecture, vibrant nightlifeand shopping and the must see major world heritage sites at Siem Reap, AngkorThom and Angkor Wat. Then there are the beaches, marine tourism, the islandsthe mighty Mekong River and eco-tourism, particularly in the North East.

Finally Laos, Asean's most sparsely populated land. Justgetting away from the madding crowd and being able to drive for miles with verylittle traffic together with the peaceful and courteous nature of its very religiouspeople is reason enough to come here. The Laotians they say do not grow rice,they listen to it grow! Its tourism slogan too reflects the Lao value ofsimplicity. Laconic, it sums up Laos in two honest words-'Simply Beautiful'.With its rivers and jungle Laos was keen at this conference to promote itseco-tourism. It is rich in gilded temples too with visits to the UNESCO worldHeritage site of Luang Prabang and the mysterious Plain of Jars being 'mustdos'.

This meeting in Manila, then was a great opportunity for allthe players in the industry to meet up and swap notes-all those involved in theindustry from government officials to owners of hotels and travel companies aswell as the travelling public in general. It was also an excellent time to showthe strength and co-operative spirit of the ten Asean countries and to showcasetheir attractiveness, beauty and positive aspects to the world in general.

Pip de Rouvray
Following the tunes (“Spring comes to Muong Hum hamlet high up the mountains with heart-rocking distant singing…” ) of talented composer Nguyen Tai ...
In the heart of the darkness of Saigon's backpacker land,ambling along down raucous Bui Vien Street and wishing I had not come out without my ear ...
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