The rise and fall of Asean Tourism brand image

The rise and fall of Asean Tourism brand image

In 1992, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pulled off Visit ASEAN Year, one of the world’s most spectacular brand-building and marketing campaigns in the history of travel & tourism. Today, in a remarkable admission of its own failure to build on the momentum, the ASEAN tourism industry leaders claim that the “ASEAN” brand is not well known. Instead, they are about to embark upon a new marketing campaign and strategic plan that will seek to downplay or, as they claim, “co-brand” the ASEAN name with “Southeast Asia.”

Fundamentally flawed in concept, this co-branding campaign is based on a raft of questionable consultancy advice and poor research. It has the potential to confuse consumers and the market and dilute the power of the ASEAN brand. Nor does it meet any of the wider objectives of the ASEAN leaders to build an ASEAN identity, one of the primary goals of the ASEAN socio-cultural integration process. Having failed to meet two key objectives of the 2002 ASEAN Tourism Agreement (to build the ASEAN tourism brand and promote ASEAN as a single tourism destination), ASEAN tourism industry leaders will have much to answer for if this entire exercise falls flat.

The following analysis strives to explain in an easy-to-understand Q&A format the key game-changing issues set to emerge at the ATF 2010 and provide some background and context behind the spin that will be used to justify the branding change. It has been co-authored by Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor, Travel Impact Newswire and Don Ross, editor, TTR Weekly. Today the longest-serving travel trade journalists in ASEAN, Muqbil and Ross have covered the ups and downs of the region more intensively than any other travel media.

What is going to happen at the ATF 2010?

ASEAN tourism ministers are preparing to sign off on a new Tourism Marketing Strategy and launch the preparatory stage for an ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (2011-15) that is being designated as the successor of the Roadmap for Integration of Tourism Sector which will expire in 2010. At the core of the marketing strategy is the creation of a new “co-branded” tagline “Southeast Asia: Feel the Warmth” and a new website that will draw upon the technology of another company called Wego Travel Search Pte Ltd, operator of the website


How did the idea of creating this co-brand come about?

The marketing strategy involves a group of American, British and Australian consultants and executives working under the aegis of an ASEAN Competitiveness Enhancement (ACE) project funded by the US government’s aid agency, USAID. According to a project brief posted on the USAID website, the objective is to “Expand the market for travel to the ASEAN region by branding and marketing Southeast Asia and facilitating multi-destination bookings on” Other objectives are to: “Enhance and promote ASEAN’s image and reputation as a regional tourist destination; Enhance and promote the Mekong Sub-region’s market positioning and branding as ASEAN’s northern circuit; and Increase the number of regional longer-stay and above average daily spending visitors.”

How did these consultants get involved?

In 2006, ASEAN and the U.S. signed an “Enhanced Partnership agreement”, a key focus of which was to involve the U.S. in the process of ASEAN economic integration. In October 2007, the US State Department and USAID launched a five-year program called the “ASEAN Development Vision to Advance National Co-operation and Economic Integration”, (ADVANCE). ADVANCE and its component programs are being implemented by a consortium of firms led by US-based consultancy Nathan Associates Inc.

Then, in February 2008, USAID launched the ACE Project to be implemented between 2008-2013. Its core objective is to enhance the competitiveness and regional integration of ASEAN’s priority industry sectors, with an emphasis placed on the developing economies of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. A supply chain analysis of ASEAN’s 12 priority industry sectors was done to identify which of them should be targeted for support. In the study, published in June 2008, the textiles/apparel and tourism sectors earned the highest scores against a set of evaluation criteria that included employment impacts, SME growth opportunities, intra-regional linkages and technology transfer opportunities.

How are U.S.-funded consultants considered qualified to advise the ASEAN tourism industry on enhancing its competitiveness?

Money talks. USAID’s financial outlay is reportedly roughly US$4 million over five years. The ASEAN tourism sector needed the funding for the marketing strategy. The ASEAN national tourism organisations presently fund their own activities with a paltry contribution of only US$10,000 per member per year, based on the equal contribution principle of ASEAN. This gives them an annual budget of a mere US$100,000. Because funding tourism marketing is not an inexpensive exercise, the USAID offer proved to be good to refuse.

The ASEAN tourism industry did not actively seek this consultancy advice. It was offered and filled a funding gap. It is unclear to what extent the ASEAN tourism leaders have any say in the choice of consultants, although they claim to have final say in shaping content. Nor do any of the consultants have any special expertise or experience beyond what already exists within the ASEAN NTOs or the ASEAN private sector. Some of the consultants were part of the former management of PATA in the days when PATA was facing its own internal problems.

It could be argued that ASEAN tourism needs no help from the U.S. government or foreign consultants in enhancing its competitiveness. In fact, ASEAN tourism is envied all over the world for its competitiveness, creativity and marketing campaigns. The measures taken by the ASEAN governments in response to recent crises have helped the industry rebound in many ASEAN countries and underpinned the strength and resilience of ASEAN tourism, free of external help.

On the other hand, the United States is grappling with serious image, branding, marketing and competitiveness problems. The U.S. does not even have a national tourism organisation. Many of its own security-related visa policies are keeping visitors away, especially from the Islamic countries.

What was the rationale for recommending the “Southeast Asia” co-brand?

The entire premise for it appears to have been based on two assessments.

1) The marketing strategy, put together by Taramax Consultants, a company run by former PATA director of operations Michael Yates, quotes an Impact Assessment of the Visit ASEAN campaign done in May 2007, by Dr Noel Scott, of the University of Queensland, “which concluded that while various marketing components had been effective, the overall campaign had been hampered by a lack of funding and research.” In the report, Dr Scott is quoted as making the following observation: “Brand awareness of ASEAN as a holiday destination is low. When consumers think of ASEAN they are more likely to think of it as a political grouping or economic region than as a holiday destination. (This) may be traced to a number of underlying issues such as (1) a lack of sufficient and guaranteed funding to enable a branding campaign to take place and (2) a lack of marketing strategy and plan based on consumer and trade research and endorsed by relevant government stakeholders and the industry.”

According to the Taramax strategy report, Dr Scott’s assessment “stopped short of postulating why ASEAN governments and industry had not committed to a well-planned, adequately funded, professionally managed and executed regional branding and marketing strategy. However, it did conclude that the strategic objectives of the Visit ASEAN campaign should be revisited and confirmed, and that the funding and organizational structures required to meet those objectives be provided.”

2) In a statement at the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2009 in Hanoi, the ACE project director Mr R.J.Gurley said their research had determined that it is “Southeast Asia” which “is already one of the best recognised global tourism brands in the market today.” He said a search of tourism guidebooks on had yielded nothing in the name of “ASEAN”, but at least 20 bearing the name of “Southeast Asia”, the most popular being the Lonely Planet publication “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.” This, Mr Gurley said, opened up a clear window of opportunity to leverage the name “Southeast Asia”.

What’s wrong with that argument?

Tourism marketing professionals would question whether that research is enough evidence to justify such a major change. Shifting brand strategy usually involves far more copious research. Even the reference to Dr Scott’s claim that “When consumers think of ASEAN they are more likely to think of it as a political grouping or economic region than as a holiday destination” is dubious. Which consumers are being referred to? Who surveyed them? Where? When? How was the question phrased?

What was the Visit ASEAN Year 1992 Campaign?

The ASEAN travel & tourism industry has been well ahead of all the ASEAN economic and business sectors in developing an ASEAN brand image, and meeting the broader economic, cultural goals of the regional grouping.

In 1992, when ASEAN celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding, the grouping had only five members (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore). Encouraged by the huge success of high-profile campaigns like Visit Thailand Year 1987 and subsequent such “Visit…. Years” by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, all the five members then collectively decided to launch a tourism promotion campaign to bring visitors to the region.

Was it a success?

It was a huge success, unparalleled in the history of global travel & tourism. There were a number of key drivers:

<> ASEAN governments were clearly impressed by the "quick-fix" ability of these thematic tourism years to attract visitors, raise foreign exchange earnings and create jobs. They also attracted investors, both local and foreign. A new range of products and services emerged, leading to a massive creation of capacity and inventory which required strong marketing efforts. The entire industry was able to single-mindedly get together under one banner, leading to unprecedented levels of budgetary allocations and industry cooperation. The airlines, the private sector, everyone got involved.

<> Many of the tourism leaders of that generation were close personal friends. The quintet most credited with the Visit ASEAN Year campaign comprises of Joop Ave (Indonesia), Abdulla Jonid (Malaysia), Dharmnoon Prachuabmoh (Thailand), Narzalina Lim (the Philippines) and Joseph Chew (Singapore). All held various senior positions in their respective national tourism industries at the time. At least two of them were confidantes of the leaders of their respective countries, thus facilitating budget approvals and quick decision-making.

<> The ASEAN Tourism Information Centre (ATIC), set up in Kuala Lumpur in 1988, helped drive tourism by providing strong direction and infrastructure support, with requisite funding.

With the economic rationale, people, processes, infrastructure and funding in place, and no global upheavals of the kind faced by the travel & tourism industry today, it did not take much for the Visit ASEAN Year campaign to succeed big time.

Why was the momentum not maintained?

There were numerous reasons, some not directly related to tourism.

ASEAN began to add new members. In January 1994, Brunei Darussalam joined ASEAN, followed by Vietnam in July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar in July 1997, and Cambodia in April 1999. Because most of these new members were very new to the game, and preoccupied with the complex rigours of nation-building, the entire ASEAN travel & tourism industry went into slow motion, becoming bogged down by decision-making, funding and other such problems.

Although tourism ranked high on their list of economic priorities, the collective ASEAN principles of attaining consensus made decision-making cumbersome. The other principle of proportionate funding meant that raising money become hostage to the lowest common denominator. Thus, there was no capacity to initiate any marketing campaigns or do strategic research.

Individually, some founder member countries of ASEAN began to face internal political upheavals. Indonesia experienced massive anti-government protests that ended in the May 1998 ouster of former President Suharto. Until then, Indonesia had been one of the fastest growing tourism destinations. As governments changed, and the tourism industry officials retired or moved on, the personal camaraderie was lost.

Then, in 1996, the ASEAN Tourism Information Centre was closed down as part of an ASEAN decision to transfer coordination of all ASEAN economic sectoral activities to the central ASEAN HQ in Jakarta. That made tourism just another cog in the wheel, a small part of the many other economic sectors under the ASEAN umbrella. It also deprived the industry of leadership and support facilities for conducting joint marketing and strategic planning exercises. Some key aspects of cooperation in marketing, research, communication and training were transferred to the private sector grouping, the ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA).

Then came the 1997 Asian economic crisis, which along with internal geopolitical disturbances and natural disasters, all affected tourism. The frequency and scale of these “external shocks” caught the industry off guard in more ways than one, and exposed how ill prepared it was to handle them.

What happened next?

The most significant development in the first decade of the 21st century was a reversal of fortune. The new ASEAN kids on the block, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, suddenly shot to prominence as “new destinations” for tour operators to sell. For these countries, travel & tourism became a national priority for economic development, job creation and foreign exchange earnings. The commensurate policy changes followed.

The first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong linking the Thai province of Nong Khai and Lao PDR capital of Vientiane, which had opened in 1994 with Australian funding, became a major conduit for moving people overland from Thailand to Laos. The opening up of powerful new tourism spots like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the massive airline capacity pumped into it further facilitated visitor arrivals. New airports and airport terminals emerged in Ho Chi Minh City and Vientiane. Visa regimes were relaxed and liberalised. PATA launched a dedicated travel mart for the Greater Mekong Subregion countries.

The formation of the Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism Activities (AMTA) funded almost entirely by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and based in its premises, facilitated infrastructure funding by the Asian Development Bank, the coordinating and continuity support of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific and the tourism expertise of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. That helped advance decision-making, planning and funding efforts.

Since then, each of those countries (except Myanmar) has hosted an ASEAN Tourism Forum.

The first ASEAN Tourism Agreement was signed in November 2002 in Phnom Penh, the first time Cambodia hosted a summit of ASEAN leaders. The signatories of that historic agreement were Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (Sultan of Brunei Darussalam), Hun Sen (PM, Cambodia); Megawati Soekarnoputri (President, Indonesia); Bounnhang Vorachith, (PM, Lao PDR); Mahathir bin Mohamad (PM, Malaysia); Senior General Than Shwe (Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council and PM, Myanmar); Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, (President, the Philippines); Goh Chok Tong, (PM, Singapore); Thaksin Shinawatra, (PM, Thailand); and Phan Van Khai, (PM, Vietnam).

What does the ASEAN Tourism Agreement encompass?

The objectives of the landmark agreement were (and still are) as follows:

1) Facilitating travel into and within ASEAN ;

2) Enhancing cooperation in the tourism industry to improve its efficiency and competitiveness;

3) Substantially reducing restrictions to trade in tourism and travel services among ASEAN member countries;

4) Establishing an integrated network of tourism and travel services in order to maximize the complementary nature of the region’s tourist attractions;

5) Promoting ASEAN as a single tourism destination with world–class standards, facilities and attractions;

6) Enhancing mutual assistance in human resource development and training in the tourism sector; and

7) Creating favourable conditions for the public and private sectors to engage more deeply in tourism development, intra–ASEAN travel and investment in tourism services and facilities.

Its various components include relaxation of visas, liberalisation of transport (especially air transport); human resources development, safety and security, etc.

What about marketing?

Marketing and promotion is one of its most important aspects. The agreement is very specific in what it seeks to achieve:

(1) Supporting the Visit ASEAN Campaign, which calls for thematic tour packages and attractions to encourage visitors to focus on specific areas of interest;

(2) Promoting ASEAN’s richly diverse nature, culture and arts;

(3) Fostering cooperation among ASEAN national tourism organisations and the tourism industry, particularly airlines, hotels and resorts, travel agencies and tour operators, in marketing and promoting transnational tour packages, including the sub-regional growth areas;

(4) Calling on airlines of Member States to expand their tourism promotional programmes;

(5) Holding ASEAN-wide promotional events within the region and overseas;

(6) Expanding and strengthening ASEAN cooperation in overseas markets and major international tourism and travel-trade fairs;

(7) Promoting ASEAN as a brand in the international market;

(8) Strengthening support for the ASEAN Tourism Forum;

(9) Promoting investment opportunities in the ASEAN tourism industry;

(10) Cooperating in the use of information technology in the ASEAN tourism and travel-trade industry; and

(11) Fostering public-private partnerships in tourism marketing and promotion in cooperation with international and regional tourism organisations and other relevant bodies.

Did the ASEAN Tourism Agreement deliver the desired results?

Depends whom you ask. The most prominent success is the continued popularity of the ASEAN Tourism Forum, clearly among the world’s top travel events. Much progress has also been made in other areas like promoting investments. Efforts are also being made on the human resources development especially in terms of gaining mutual recognition of ASEAN educational qualifications in tourism.

Where has it fallen short?

By their own admission, ASEAN tourism leaders have failed to meet clause 5 of the objectives (Promoting ASEAN as a single tourism destination with world–class standards, facilities and attractions;) and clause 7 of the marketing & promotion section (Promoting ASEAN as a brand in the international market;). Oscar Palapyap, former chairman of the ASEAN Tourism Marketing Task Force said in a report, “ASEAN has a logo and a tagline “Perfect 10 Paradise” but (this) does not seem to be very well known. Although member countries are supposed to carry the logo in their collaterals, this initiative still has to be fully realized.” He did not elaborate.

Why is this?

The inability of ASEAN tourism leaders to realise the relatively simple task of imprinting the ASEAN logo on all their collaterals says a lot. They claim that this is all due to the lack of a proper campaign focus and funding. But that is only partly true. The real reason is the inability to focus on low-cost, creative yet effective solutions.

For example, there has been ceaseless discussion about all the ASEAN countries exhibiting under a common ASEAN pavilion or some such umbrella platform at international travel shows like ITB Berlin and World Travel Market. This has never been done. No explanation has been forthcoming about why even this relatively simple move could not be carried out.

What else could have been done?

The Visit ASEAN brand could have been carried forward without necessarily being associated with a specific campaign. Undertaking full-scale campaigns is a painstaking, costly affair. But the simple act of placing a “Visit ASEAN” logo on all the marketing and promotion materials of the ASEAN tourism industry would have worked wonders.

Imagine the impact of such a logo being emblazoned on letterheads, websites, brochures, in-flight magazines, airline liveries, airports, tour coaches, convention centres, shopping complexes, etc. etc, across the entire ASEAN tourism industry. It would have required no extra taxpayer supported funding or any cumbersome political decision-making. Yet, it would have met the brand-building concept like nothing else. It would also have contributed massively to the process of fostering a sense of ASEAN identity. The “Visit ASEAN Year campaign” of 1992 would have become an ongoing, sustained, uninterrupted effort by being converted into both a simple slogan as well an invitation to action: “Visit ASEAN” regardless of when, where and how. That could also have applied to both intra-ASEAN travel as well as travel to ASEAN from outside the region.

Air Asia, an airline that did not even exist in 2002 when the ASEAN Tourism Agreement was signed, is now seeking to become “THE ASEAN airline”. In August 2009, it contributed to the celebration of ASEAN Day by launching a livery of aircraft emblazoned with the ASEAN logo and the slogan “Truly ASEAN” on its aircraft fuselage. Said the airline’s CEO Dato Tony Fernandes, “By waving the ASEAN ‘flag’ in all the places we go, AirAsia will be doing its part to promote the region.”

There is no shortage of such simple but effective marketing genius in ASEAN. ASEAN tourism leaders have been unable to follow suit, in both the private and public sectors.

Will the new website do the trick?

The jury is out on this too. According to a media release, an agreement has been signed between technology firm Wego Travel Search Pte Ltd, ASEANTA, and ACE to develop this website. Wego and ACE will share development and integration costs of the trip planner technology, ACE will cover development costs of the website, and Wego will host and maintain on its servers. Wego and ASEANTA will share the revenues generated via the trip planner. It is already positioning itself as the “official tourism marketing website of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)” and has announced a link-up with Lonely Planet publications.

However, the website’s ability to attract content (especially from the small and medium sized companies being specifically targetted) will depend entirely on the business terms and conditions attached to it. It will also need to compete, just like any other travel website, with the huge number of websites, reservation systems and booking engines out there. It will also need to be marketed, a costly endeavour. The terms and conditions of this entire arrangement have not been made transparently clear. Who owns the rights to the domain name, for example? How will revenues be split? Who will have access to the data that will be mined from the booking trends? How will it be shared with the industry?

What other problems can be foreseen?

There is a serious risk of “co-branding” creating confusion in the minds of consumers and travel trade.

At the official level, all of ASEAN’s activities, projects, meetings and events are held under that name. Indeed, the vision is now to move beyond being just a “brand” and build the concept of “One Vision, One Identity and One Sharing and Caring Community” around the ASEAN name. ASEAN began as political and economic forum, but is now moving towards closer social, cultural integration, which is the essence of its ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) blueprint, also signed by the ASEAN leaders in 2009.

On 15 December 2008, the ASEAN Charter came into effect, the first document of its kind, designed to “realise an ASEAN Community that is politically cohesive, economically integrated and socially responsible”.

Creating a separate Southeast-Asia slogan deviates from these wider strategic objectives and sends an entirely wrong signal.

Conversely, even if the project succeeds, it could pose a potential problem. Will ASEAN’s other economic sectors have to re-brand themselves accordingly?

Moreover, as a bloc, ASEAN’s “turf” is specifically confined to the 10 member countries. The term “Southeast Asia” is merely a geographical description that could also include other non-ASEAN countries like Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. Even Yunnan, the southern Chinese province of China, bordering Laos, could geographically be considered part of “Southeast Asia” although it is not an ASEAN member.

Are there any other solutions?

The tourism section of the ASEAN secretariat needs to be injected with some drive, energy and creativity. It is presently nothing more than a glorified paper-shuffling operation, devoid of imagination, vision or communication skills. There is also a serious shortage of transparency. Valuable information presented at the ASEAN tourism meetings, which could hardly be considered confidential or classified, is often treated like state secrets although much of it could be of considerable use to the private sector in driving its own plans and projects. Media relations are virtually non-existent.

What has been the role of ASEANTA?

Over the years, the private sector travel industry associations which comprise the ASEANTA membership have also tried to come up with various ideas to raise funds and put some “teeth” into their own proposals. These include launching a visit ASEAN Pass, creating a website and even taking over the operation and management of the ASEAN Tourism Forum. For various reasons, none of these ideas have gained traction. Now, ASEANTA is proud to have been the signatory of the original Memorandum of Understanding with the ACE Project, a move which has given it some public profile. It hopes the project will deliver it some revenue, too.

What will the Strategic Plan (2011-2015) do?

Although the ACE project was only intended to help boost the region’s competitiveness in terms of marketing, it has also been saddled with the job of doing the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan. This project, too, will not cost ASEAN anything. Yet another consultant has been hired, this time the “College of Innovation” at Thailand’s Thammasat University. Headed by a Canadian professor, this group is doing much the same as any other consultants – interviewing the tourism industry constituents and coming up with a plan that will be presented to the Heads of NTO in June/July 2010 and then endorsed by the 14th meeting of ASEAN tourism ministers slated for January 2011 in Cambodia. A preview of it made available to these reporters indicated little more than an exercise in academia.

What is the future of ASEAN tourism?

Like in other parts of the world, ASEAN tourism has been affected over the last two years by global, regional and local problems. The global financial crisis, high fuel prices, bird flu and swine flu, geopolitical instability and internal issues in the ASEAN countries (such as the closure of Bangkok airport for a 10-day period in November 2008), have all created problems.

In spite of that, ASEAN remains one of the most popular and fastest growing destinations in the world. And it has a hugely promising future. A host of political, economic, cultural, demographic and other such factors, as well as infrastructure developments, will continue to drive tourism to, from and within ASEAN. Indeed, competition amongst the ASEAN countries is driving growth far more effectively than cooperation. Here is a brief roundup of the region’s strong tourism “fundamentals”:

<> Cumulatively, the 10 member countries have a population of nearly 600 million, with rising economic prosperity and a growing middle class.

<> They boast a rich inventory of tourism assets, including both natural and man-made attractions.

<> There is more than enough capacity in terms of hotel rooms, airline seats, convention centres, etc., some of which are considered the best in the world.

<> They have extremely competitive national tourism organisations, with large marketing budgets.

<> The populous neighbours of India and China will be major generators of business, overtaking the long-standing front-runners Japan and Korea.

<> Low cost airlines are continuing to provide a significant impetus to intra-ASEAN travel.

<> The emergence of the Trans Asian highway and Trans-Asian railway will further boost transportation linkages.

<> Relaxation of border-control formalities will mean greater movement of people and goods over land border crossings.

<> Demographic trends such as the ageing societies in the industrialised countries and young societies in ASEAN and the rest of the world will ensure no shortage of numbers.

<> Technology is galloping in leaps and bounds – more internet penetration will boost social networking and other such connectivity.

But recent developments have also indicated that tourism growth will face its fair share of threats and challenges. Natural disasters and health warnings will continue to pose standing risks. The impact of climate change is only just beginning to make itself felt. And the region’s cultural, social and ethnic diversity, certainly its major tourism asset, could also be a significant future liability. Political problems between the ASEAN countries themselves can also create temporary hiccups.

So what’s the conclusion?

In 2012, ASEAN tourism will observe the 20th anniversary of 1992 Visit ASEAN Year and the 45th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN. As it looks ahead, the ASEAN tourism industry has to ask itself: “What difference is it making to the future development of ASEAN tourism? If the entire ASEAN tourism apparatus was to be dismantled today, how much difference would it make to the movement of peoples to, from and within ASEAN?”

The answer should be honest, and determine what the industry does next.