The annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Asian Tourism Forum (ATF), is set to take place later this month in Manila, where diplomats, tourism delegates, and media from the ten member nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – will meet to discuss the future of travel within the region.
Started in 1981, this will be the 35th year of the conference. This year’s theme is “One Community for Sustainability,” highlighting ASEAN’s desire to work together as a region to responsibly develop and foster tourism.
“With the theme, One Community for Sustainability, the 35th edition of this forum will launch the new ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (ATSP) 2016 – 2020, which will work towards not only the development and growth of the region’s tourism, but also in ensuring that this growth is grounded on responsible, sustainable, and inclusive tourism,” said Ramon R. Jimenez JR., Secretary of Tourism for the Philippines. “Our region is characterized by coopetition —a cooperative, collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country.”
Past ATFs have been a platform for both reflection and forward thinking in terms of Southeast Asian tourism. Through small, personal meetings and briefings, each country analyzes its past tourism performance, projects future growth, and relays the new, innovative ways in which goals can be met. Recent years have seen big announcements such as new direct flights (Manila-JFK), airport renovations, new infrastructure that makes travel within the country easier (proposition for a road from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat), and land bridges and trains to connect countries (Malaysia/Singapore high speed rail), among others. Each country also discusses travel and tourism opportunities for the coming year, including new hotels, projects, and up-and-coming points of interest.
Top destinations in the Philippines to be featured at this year’s ATF include the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, Cebu, Davao, Palawan, Banaue, Vigan, Boracay, and Manila.
Here’s a look at some of the news from last year’s ATF, hosted by Myanmar. Stay tuned for all the news from ATF 2016 later this month.
Singapore: One of the country’s largest projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend it through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
Malaysia: This is the year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. The highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival, which you can read about here.
Myanmar: Myanmar tourism continues to grow at a quick rate, breaking three million visitors in 2014 after welcoming only one million in 2012.The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options to make things smoother on the ground. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year.
Brunei: Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks. Still, its recent implementation of Sharia Law will keep away a good portion of US travelers.
Vietnam: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours.
Thailand: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, westerns typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east.
Philippines: The Philippines is unique in that it is the only Southeast Asian country were Americans make up a large bulk of its tourists. As a result, Philippine Airlines announced that it will begin a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila on March 15th.
Indonesia: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination Americans are familiar with. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the deepest country’s in Southeast Asia when it comes to the number of nooks and crannies to be discovered.
Laos: The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. That said, it is also upgrading all four of its international airports – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng and Vientiane are next to catch on.
Cambodia: Cambodia has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The thought is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weakening the economy and potentially degrading the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. “We’ll have to consider the effects and impacts of such a project.”