2018 Mekong Tourism Forum | Sustainable Tourism, Exciting Start-Ups and Role of Influencers

People often associate Mekong River exclusively to Vietnam. Unbeknownst to many, the mighty Mekong stretches a long distance and drawn-out amply forming a sub-region inside the vast Asian continent. The countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and even China, are all needled together by Mekong River.

In light of this geographical fact, Mekong not only stitched these nations together through its many snaking tributaries, it also paved the way for the creation of a deputized Tourism organization centering on areas where the mighty Mekong passes through. 

Since 1996, leading players from the travel industry have been gathering annually for the Mekong Tourism Forum. Each yeah, a standout number of issues are discussed along with new ideas. This year, a myriad of fresh innovative concepts was deliberated – with every topic generating buzz and heightened awareness, aimed at making the Mekong sub-region meet the demands of growing tourism, as Earth friendly and community centered as possible. 

Transforming Travel – Transforming Lives’

This year’s theme centers on making the travel industry become the vehicle to transform lives. Other than the usual economic and cultural development gained from the tourism industry; participants are encouraged to deeply advocate for the inclusion of more local communities.

To send this message clearly, a number of conference sessions were held at various local communities where delegates participated in various discussions tackling the several tourism key points such as: eco-tourism, heritage tourism, religious tourism, festival tourism, adventure tourism, wellness tourism and food tourism.

Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, said “We believe that tourism can be an important catalyst in changing people’s lives for the better through mutual understanding. Organising workshops in ethnic villages surrounding the city of Nakhon Phanom was an idea focused on bringing delegates to areas where tradition still shapes people’s daily life.”

Simultaneously held in eight ethnic community villages around Nakhon Phanom and guided with regional experts. The delegates engaged with the villagers and by doing so, we learned how tourism can make an impact in their communities. [1]

The Call for More Sustainable Tourism

Promoting tourism also comes with a price: Over-tourism. This bane of the tourism industry can cause significant damage to a once stunning destination. Case in point: the beaches of Thailand, Boracay Island in the Philippines, Bali in Indonesia just to name a few.

This is where the Mekong Region comes in as an ideal place to combat over-tourism. Thraenhart adds “Thailand is very active supporting secondary destinations to combat over tourism at popular resorts. Over-tourism is a global issue and our trends report will features input from 50 experts to show the way forward to achieve sustainable growth.”

Numerous speakers called for a solid action to promote sustainable tourism to become an integral part of tourism promotion. One such presenter was Jeremy Smith – the co-founder and editor of Travindy.com, a leading sustainable tourism website. He discussed his book “Transforming Travel”, which echoes the call for us to adopt the principles of the ‘circular economy’.

A circular economy is designed by the philosophies of regenerating valuable resources – especially of planet Earth. This means the minimizing, slowing down or in best case scenarios, closing down energy and natural resources wastage. This is achieved through recycling, upcycling, durable design, constant maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishing and remanufacturing.

If applied in the tourism industry, chances of conserving and preserving a tranquil island, an ancient city and a snow-capped mountain becomes higher.

Start-Ups takes the Spot Light

This year’s Mekong Tourism Forum also provided an avenue for a number of promising start-ups to present their innovative ideas and attached advocacies all pertaining to sustainability, digital nomadism and community-based tourism programs.

Bamboo straws from BambooLao
Notable start-ups such as BambooLao, Ecohost, GoExplore and Adventoro [2] made a huge impression with their varying advocacies centering from environmental causes such as eliminating single-use plastics, to giving travellers and digital nomads more choices in planning their journeys across the Southeast Asia region.

The Influencing Role of Influencers in Tourism

It is no coincidence that this year’s Mekong Tourism Forum saw the most number of invited travel bloggers as compared to only a couple of individuals invited three years ago. This stems from the increasing influence of online influencers in championing the tourism industry.

By writing about travels, more and more people are getting inspired to pack their backpacks and explore a world outside their comfort zone. Matt Gibson, the President of the Professional Travel Bloggers Association, tackled this burgeoning movement of so-called online influencers.

Before Gibson presented his slides, he called out more than a dozen travel bloggers (including this writer) to join him on stage to introduce to the many movers and shakers of the travel industry.

Because of that, I met several persons from the travel industry and made contacts for future collaborations. With more places to visit particularly in the Greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia, and travel narratives to write about, I was glad to have been invited to attend the 2018 Mekong Tourism Forum.

With Tass and Aom of Destination Mekong
Apart from learning heaps of knowledge about tourism in this part of the world, I also met wonderful and dedicated people who are passionate in introducing the wonderful culture and magnificent locations in the Mekong Region, to the rest of the world.

Writer’s note:
[1] I participated in the Heritage Tourism discussion and a narrative of what transpired there will be written on another blog post.
[2] Will write a detailed article about these start-ups on separate blog posts.