It’s all about redefining travel growth in the Mekong sub-region.

The six countries bordering the Mekong River – Cambodia, China (Guangxi and Yunnan provinces), Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) continue to place tourism as their top priority to generate economic growth. However, sustainability and social concerns are increasingly on the agenda.

It is turning into a top event for all stakeholders involved in tourism for the Greater Mekong Sub-region. The Mekong Tourism Forum is the event where national tourism organisations, NGOs, the Asia Development Bank, hotels, airlines and tour operators gather to define the future of the tourism in the region.


The Mekong at Luang Prabang

This year in Luang Prabang (Laos), the event has become even more inclusive. The entire town was turned into a venue with workshops organised in various sites across the UNESCO listed city to bring a local experience to delegates. Restaurants, cruise boats, a botanical garden, a museum and some hotels welcomed sessions evoking gastronomy, human protections at work, women-led business, hotel investment, air transport, river cruise, heritage and cultural tourism. “It was a format to be sure that all delegates would also understand that tourism in the Greater Mekong Region is not only about adding hotels and highways. “Prosper with Purpose” was the theme of our forum this year and it was really what we want to achieve in this region. This event was truly designed by the industry for the industry,” explains Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region is often dubbed as the last Asian frontier as it offers to travellers whatever they dream of: pristine landscapes from seaside to mountains; a rich cultural heritage visible in its temples, sacred sites, old cities (the region has over 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites); a diversity of genuinely friendly populations and ethnics; and last but not least, an excellent quality in services at affordable prices. The GMS welcomed last year some 61 million international travellers, half of them visiting Thailand (32.5 million) followed by Vietnam (10 million), China Guangxi and Yunnan (6 million) and Cambodia (5 million).

Over the last decade, major infrastructure development has been achieved with new border checkpoints opened which help improved intra-regional land connections; new air routes have been opened as airports are getting modernized (Hanoi, Phnom Penh or Bangkok Suvarnabhumi) while greenfield airports are currently in construction (Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon); many countries now also offer visa online or even abolished visa formalities.

Looking at capacity, the GMS offers tourists over 40,000 hotels representing a total of 550,000 rooms (excluding Guangxi province).


Mekong: Vietnam (Photo by McKay Savage)

All the large chains are today present in the region. All international brands are of course in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia as well as in Yunnan. They now move to secondary destinations as well as to Laos and Myanmar, the latter becoming the hottest market for now with groups such as Intercontinental, Kempinski, Hilton, Melia, Shangri-La, Belmond, Lotte or Wyndham.

But while tourism has been growing at high pace, local populations feel a need to slowdown the tempo of development. At the Forum, 80% of the sessions were about responsible tourism. It also demonstrated how secondary destinations could now become the new source of a more respectful tourism development.

The MTF then demonstrated that smaller towns without large conference halls can host world-class events. Luang Prabang’s historic district was transformed into the venue, where delegates joined highly relevant thematic sessions moderated by subject matter experts, aligned to the United Nations International Year of Sustainability Tourism for Development.

Jens Thraenhart, Managing Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office unveiled the Mekong Tourism sector’s 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.

Sustainability is a nice word but it means what people want it to mean

“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 want it to mean. The only remedy is to delve into root causes and ask what is about the systems and patterns of behaviours 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 and hopes to address these issues by:

  • 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

“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).

“There are many laws to protect people, landscapes and cultures. We now need to monitor their enforcement”, he added.

This is probably the major challenge for all GMS countries. While all the governments recognise 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. GMS starts slowly to listen to civic groups (mostly locals with the support of NGOs). A good start to be followed…

PHOTO CREDIT (top of page): Francisco Anzola – Navigating the Mekong, CC BY 2.0,