Asian tourism ministers debate growth strategies

As Asia’s tourism boom continues, top officials gathered in Macau for the World Tourism Organization’s
(UNWTO) first Ministerial Roundtable, aimed at identifying the best policies for coping with rapid growth and ensuring that it is sustainable.“Despite a series of problems in recent years, Asian tourism has increased its resilience and become the motor of tourism growth worldwide,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli in opening the roundtable along with Macao Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah.

The global pattern of tourist flows is being redrawn with one out of every five international tourists now choosing a destination in Asia and increasing numbers of Asian themselves travelling overseas. An estimated 156 million tourists visited the region in 2005, up more than 7% over the previous year despite the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Ministerial Roundtable on Asia-Pacific Tourism Policies - moderated by Nik Gowing, main Presenter on BBC World Television - began with a presentation on megatrends that are shaping the future of Asian tourism. Prepared by Dr. Kaye Chon of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the research revealed 15 megatrends, among them:

- Asian tourism is becoming more activity-based rather than destination based;
- Asia is becoming a convention hub;
- Low cost carriers are driving tourism growth in the region;
- India is Asia’s leader in real tourism growth.

With the megatrends as a foundation, the rest of the three-hour roundtable focused on how to manage the crises that seem to regularly impact tourism; how to boost arrivals through simplification of visas and effective promotion; and how to protect the region’s natural attractions and cultural treasures from the millions of tourists who visit every year.

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Managing Crisis

Accurate information about a disaster provided to the media and to travel industry partners in a timely manner is the best way to deal with a crisis, participants agreed. “The perception is usually worse than the reality,” said Indonesian Tourism Minister Jero Wacik, expressed confidence that tourism would recover following the tragic earthquake last month in Yogyakarta.

UNWTO has pledged to assist Indonesia with tourism recovery expertise, as it did for several countries struggling to recover from the tsunami last year.

Maldives Deputy Tourism Minister Abdul Hameed Zakariyya said the archipelago’s tourism industry was able to recover rapidly from the Indian Ocean tsunami by dealing with the perception problem: “We directly targeted the fear factor, especially in the minds of European tourists and achieved a recovery in just ten months.”

Hong Kong Secretary for Economic Development Eva Cheng said the experience of joining together with the private sector to overcome the SARS crisis made the tourism sector stronger than ever: ?The tight coordination that emerged from that crisis has helped us reach new heights.?

A crisis recovery plan should be in place to manage any kind of emergency, according to China National Tourism Administration Chairman Shao Qiwei, who said that CNTA’s own plan helped them recover as soon as possible follow the SARS epidemic.

Visa Simplification

Liberalization of visa policies and deregulation of air traffic emerged as the best ways of increasing tourism rapidly. The success India has achieved in recent years was attributed equally to the strong “Incredible India” promotional campaign and its new “open skies” policy.

“Japan achieved a 30% increase in tourists from Hong Kong with a new visa waiver programme, as well as a 20% increase in Thai tourists now that they no longer need a visa,” said Mr. Hayao Hora, a senior advisor to the Minister.

Australia and Cambodia are having success with electronic visa systems that allow tourists to apply for visas over Internet. While other countries, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, find it is easier to attract visitors if visas are available on arrival. Both systems require close cooperation between tourism authorities and immigration officials.

Sustainability

Protecting the environment and cultural heritage attractions so that they remain attractive for tourists and locals alike is a top concern in a region that is experiencing such rapid development as Asia.

“To us sustainability means a responsible and holistic tourism policy, it means social carrying capacity, economic carrying capacity and environmental carrying capacity,” said Bhutan’s Tourism Director Lhatu Wangchuk.

The ministers agreed that sustainability requires long-term planning and development, as well as political commitment to fix environmental problems that already exist in some parts of the region.

The Ministerial Roundtable was organized with the collaboration of the Macau Government Tourist Office. It was followed by regional meetings for the Asia-Pacific and South Asia Commissions of UNWTO.
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