Vientiane, Laos, recently hosted the 42nd annual ASEAN Tourism Forum
The Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism hosted the ASEAN TOURISM FORUM (ATF) from January 22-27, 2024 in its Capital, Vientiane, with the theme: Quality and Responsible Tourism—Sustaining ASEAN Future.
Since its inauguration in 1981, the annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 600 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The tourism fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, for now, a difficult to access Myanmar.
In 2023, ASEAN welcomed 93 million international arrivals—and increase from 2022 by 153-percent.
The 42nd annual ATF made a lasting impression on its delegates who attended dozens of official sessions, functions, and celebrations at fabulous hotels including the Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel. International buyers, sellers, and media were represented from around the world and fused the intentions of ASEAN travel trade industry.
An exhibitor of note was the SUSTOUR Laos Project—in partnership with Lasting Laos, and Travelife—who have joined forces to help Lao tourism and society prosper in green mode. Its unified campaign encourages micro- to medium-sized tourism enterprises to adopt sustainable practices and earn certifications. No greenwashing here, as I witnessed living proof of not only numerous, thriving initiatives, but also how this agenda directly benefits the Lao people. The SUSTOUR Laos Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by Plan International Laos.
The 27th Meeting of the ASEAN Tourism Ministers was also part of the ATF agenda. The meeting noted that based on the preliminary figures of 2023, ASEAN saw a 153-percent year-on-year increase in international arrivals. It also noted the successful launch of the three marketing campaigns in 2023, namely Southeast Asia Travel Collective, imaginASEAN and intra- ASEAN Tourism Recovery Campaign.
ATF 2024 Media Updates
ATF 2024 attracted delegates from 39 countries. Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination. Here is a breakdown of the 10 tourism minister’s announcements:
LAOS: Laos Simply Beautiful continues to strive for and celebrate inclusive tourism in a unified Southeast Asia. Once again, China, Thailand, and Korea top its list of international visitors in 2023. Lao tourism recertified its country’s commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. A recently completed modern highway and high-speed railway (10 Stations in Laos; 4 in China) have simplified traveling here in a big way. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos has successfully evolved places like Vang Vieng from backpacker hangouts to more upscale destinations. The future looks bright for “Jewel of the Mekong.” Ps, I’ve explored 150 countries. The ultra-mellow Lao people might be the kindest, most hospitable, and genuine humans on Earth.
VIETNAM continues trying to simplify its visa policy and extending tourist visas to 45 days. The Vietnam Timeless Charm promotion helped inspire visitors in 2023, with Korea as the frontrunner. Vietnam remains one of the world’s 10 fastest growing travel markets, and doing so with a continued focus on security. 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.
Amazing THAILAND continues taking large strides toward sustainable development. Thailand welcomed over 28 million international arrivals which generated revenue of 1.2 trillion Baht (35-percent of those arrivals come from ASEAN countries). Part of its brand is the exotic culture of service that welcomes all. Thailand forecasts $75 billion in U.S. tourism spending in 2024. Along with being the region’s ASEAN highway interconnecting the region via marine, rail, air and road, Thailand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing health & wellness sectors.
SINGAPORE’s Passion Made Possible campaign continues to drive an elevated brand of marketing that drew 12.4 million international visitors in 2023. Its top three visitor arrival markets in 2023 were Indonesia (2.1M), China (1.2M), and Malaysia (985k). Singapore continues to drive tourism demand with a vibrant and robust events calendar. One of the country’s most ambitious projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to China. Tourists are flocking to their enduring offerings, including the National Gallery and Chinatown Street Market.
The Love the PHILIPPINES campaign was launched in 2023, replacing the roughly 11-year “It’s more fun” campaign. The Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Philippines were thrilled to announce the release of the upgraded Travel Philippines app. The new (free) TRAVELPH app is a game changer. The Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions. The U.S. remains its second largest market, the first being South Korea—one out of four tourists here are Korean. I’ve enjoyed Philippine Airlines direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila (via Vancouver).
The MYANMAR Be Enchanted campaign continues to lure international tourism, as a healthy number of Thai visitors continues. Its plan is to develop a more resilient, balanced, responsible, and sustainable tourism sector. Myanmar remains the land of (at least monthly) festivals. In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. The tourism minister identified tourism as one of its top-five priority sectors with a promising growth rate. The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm $50) and business visa on arrival ($40), both work.
MALAYSIA Truly Asia revealed its The Soul of Malaysia campaign, which continues to showcase the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. They also announced the advent of a digital arrival card for foreign visitors. Product development ideas include niche sports, hipster, wedding, food, and health & wellness. Kuala Lumpur has direct airline connections to 80 destinations with Air Asia being one of its busiest airline players in this region. Here, there is a festival for every occasion—and an occasion for every festival! Tourism partners created an ASEAN Adventure Travel Booklet for youth/backpacker market.
Wonderful INDONESIA has plans to make the country’s culinary delights know worldwide. With covid-19 seemingly behind us, international tourist arrivals show virtually uninterrupted growth: 2.5 million (1950), 2.78 million (1980), 5.28 million (1995), 16.2 million (2018), 19 million (2023). Cruising Indonesia’s huge archipelagos is becoming more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, which is largely the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia.
The vision of the CAMBODIA’s Kingdom of Wonder campaign continues to attract visitors from every corner of the globe, with Thailand, Vietnam, and China topping that list. Discussion continues on building a new road to Angkor Wat. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat/Siem Reap, which would weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. The Kingdom of Wonder now partners with Thailand for a single visa option.
BRUNEI did not participate in ATF 2024. Its Adobe of Peace campaign has been a success. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain (especially in neighboring Borneo) that could be very attractive to adventure travelers.
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ATF delegates were offered a post-conference tour option to visit Nam Pien and Vang Vieng.
Lao Mother Nature delightfully “breaking the fourth wall” in my chic jungle-cottage at Nam Pien Yorla Pa, a 35-bungalow resort within a protected forest in Laos. Its evergreen campus is connected by a network of skybridges and monkey bridges that sway above rivers and rainforest.
Inthira Vang Vieng has 38 modern-urban riverfront rooms where polished concrete greets handsome wood. Every balcony has unobstructed views of the Nam Song River and the mountains that bless it. Along with installing biodigesters to convert food waste into home cooking energy and fertilizer, this establishment set up a system to effectively manage all its wastewater before releasing it into the nearby river.
Vientiane’s Landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel has spacious, deluxe rooms with huge bathtubs and Lao-redwood floors and balconies overlooking the Mekong River and dreamy sunsets. The redwood-floor balconies are nearly as big as the rooms! Both indoors and outdoors, the property offers anything and everything you would expect from a five-star world-class hotel, including an epic breakfast spread. Sometimes, the eager staff at luxury hotels can overkill with hospitality, but the welcoming, warm, and professional staff here exemplifies the relaxed Lao demeanor.
Vientiane’s Settha Palace Hotel redefines French colonial-era luxury. Originally built in 1932, a full renovation in 1999 makes this hotel one of the true architectural jewels of Laos and victorious return to its former imperial glory. This quiet oasis, in the midst of bustling Vientiane, has 29 finely appointed rooms. The entire campus has Lao-redwood floors, elegant wood furnishings, and charming chandelier lighting. Waiters and staff in white jackets tend to your every need. This place is Lao art, history, and culture—a charming Vientiane landmark.
MORE ABOUT ATF
In terms of tourism, Southeast Asia holds vast potential as one sustainable community. The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on this region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2020 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
For more information and tourism statistics visit ATFtravel. ATF 2025 will be in Malaysia.