2016 was a challenging year for many ASEAN countries where they struggled against an array of problems including the economy, disputes about sovereignty, and troubled internal affairs within member states.
Despite these challenges, however, the tourism industry in ASEAN has still managed to maintain a steady growth.
This is evidenced by the large number of tourists that have visited the SEA region in 2016.
For one, Cambodia had 5 million tourists in 2016, a remarkable achievement for the country.
Thailand still managed to attract up to 32 million visitors in 2016, marking a growth of 9.7%, even despite the passing of the Emperor, which, predictably, had a negative impact on the tourism industry.
Meanwhile, Indonesia received up to 12 million tourists, which amounted to about 20% in growth. Besides that, Vietnam received around 10 million tourists while the Philippines received close to 5 million tourists in 2016. In fact, the Southeast Asian region was the best performing region in the global tourism industry for the year 2016.
The tourism industry contributed to growth of the Southeast Asian economy by 7.9% in 2015, overtaking South Asia by 7.4% and Oceania by 6.2%.
This growth was mainly led by the overall economic growth in the ASEAN region, and also by the fact that ASEAN countries are in close geographical proximity to the fast-growing Chinese market.
Statistics show that Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar were among the top 10 fastest growing tourism economies in 2015.
Besides that, the absolute scale of Thailand’s and Indonesia’s tourism sectors are ranked among the world’s top 20.
All this data definitely makes it easy to be optimistic about the tourism industry in ASEAN.
However, we still need to keep from being too idealistic about the tourism industry in ASEAN and take an honest look at the challenges we face.
Firstly, infrastructure is crucial to the growth of the tourism industry, whether in ASEAN or otherwise.
However, based on Thailand’s “Bangkok post” last month, a World Bank economist claimed that the infrastructure in Thailand is struggling to cope with the growing number of tourists. It is also worth noting that Thailand is not the only ASEAN country facing this issue.
Infrastructure straining under the load
Let us take Myanmar as an example. Myanmar only received 800 thousand tourists in 2011 but that number shot up to almost 6 million in 2016.
This pushed Myanmar to improve its infrastructure urgently in order to better cope with the ever-increasing number of tourists.
Besides good and adequate infrastructure, sufficient and effective human resource is also key to the sustenance of the tourism industry.
Looking at Myanmar once again, it lacks sufficient trained workers in the tourism industry.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the country is unable to set up enough training centres to meet the increased demand, and the same goes to Cambodia.
In October last year, the officials in Cambodia pointed out that Cambodia’s tourism industry needs an additional 200 thousand trained professionals working in the tourism industry to reach the goal of attracting 7 million tourists by 2020.
Looking at the current state of Cambodia’s tourism industry, it is in dire need of more skilled workers and resources. Statistics show that Cambodia will need between 800 thousand and 1 million Cambodians trained in hotel management to cope with the growth in number of tourists.
Besides that, the ability to speak different languages is also important in sustaining the tourism industry in ASEAN.
This is because tourists who visit ASEAN are mostly from countries such as China, Korea, Japan, France etc., and these tourists will not be able to understand or converse in Burmese.
However, the education systems in many ASEAN countries do not equip the locals with such language skills.
But of course, not all ASEAN countries experience growth in their tourism industries in the last year.
In fact, some member countries experienced a decrease in the number of foreign tourists.
In 2016, Thailand’s tourist arrivals dropped by 16% and 30% in October and November respectively and it is predicted for the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand will drop by 20% in 2017.
However, the number of Chinese tourists in Cambodia is increasing, and Cambodia enjoyed a 20% growth between 2015 and 2016.
ASEAN as a tourist destination
ASEAN has to start thinking about marketing the entire region as a whole as a tourist destination instead of the continuing with the piecemeal, single-country- focused marketing that has been done for so long.
Only then can the visitors visit the whole ASEAN and enjoy every part of ASEAN instead of just visiting a few member countries of ASEAN.
At the same time, ASEAN tourism industry will have to address the possibility safety issues especially at the borders, as it is now one of the main concerns in 207.
Southeast Asia is known globally for its biodiverse natural environments, cultures, and histories.
These are what draw the crowds in. Therefore, the tourism industry in ASEAN has to be ready to offer these to the tourists, but it has to deal with the aforementioned challenges before it can do so.