Special Column: World Economic Forum on East Asia —Thoughts on the Possibilities of “Inclusive Tourism,” a New Breed of Tourism that Brings All People and Organizations Together for a Truly Social Effort
In Japan the World Economic Forum (WEF) is primarily known for its annual meeting in Davos, but throughout the year it holds various meetings around the world, whether by region or by industry. From June 5-7, the WEF on East Asia was held in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar. Myanmar has been gaining attention for its rapid development and return to the international community following two decades of rule by the military junta, during which period democratization was halted and economic growth was virtually nonexistent. But the country is now moving forward with political reforms led by President Thein Sein, and in 2014 it will chair the ASEAN Summit. The last WEF meeting was for Myanmar the first international conference held in recent years where learned circles from industry, government and academia gathered from around the world.
Ken Hibino Columnist
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The JTB Group has participated in the WEF annual meeting (Davos Summit) for the first time this year, and also in the WEF on Latin America that followed. One of the aims for its participation in the last WEF on East Asia was to attend the WEF Travel & Tourism High Level Meeting (Tourism Meeting), where the Group sought to understand the current situation and issues surrounding tourism in Southeast Asia, and to gain hints on what the Group can bring to the region, and how it can approach business, through tourism in the future. In June this year, the Group has just established a joint venture, JTB POLESTAR COMPANY LIMITED, with the local travel agency Myanmar Polestar Travels & Tours, and started an airport limousine service connecting Yangon International Airport and the city of Yangon.
Through its participation in the meeting, the Group realized afresh that the countries in Southeast Asia are rapidly moving forward to establish the ASEAN Community by 2015, and promoting globalization to respond to competition from India, China and elsewhere. The word “inclusion” was often heard in many of the sessions at the meeting, and the Tourism Meeting also put forward the concept of “inclusive tourism” as a new idea. For the JTB Group, the meeting provided an opportunity to reaffirm the significance and direction of the DMC* concept that it is promoting, as well as the ideal manner in which the tourism industry in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and other countries in Southeast Asia should evolve in the future.
*DMC: Stands for Destination Management Company. It refers to a company that provides highly specialized services with a focus on designing and proposing tours, events, experiences, transportation, logistics, etc. as a unique value of the region, leveraging the abundant natural, social and cultural resources in the area. Under this concept, the JTB Group upholds its regional interaction business as a pillar of its corporate activities.
The Potential of Myanmar and Expectations toward Tourism
From the start of the 21st century, the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw has been undergoing physical transformation as a new administrative capital led by the former military regime. The capital was relocated in 2006, yet development work still continues to this day. The city is aptly described as a new world that suddenly appeared in the middle of a land covered with forests and farmland. The uncanny sight of pagodas built in imitation of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon lined up in the midst of broad highways, convention halls and luxury hotels is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Avatar, directed by James Cameron.
During the two decades of military rule, Myanmar has remained stagnant economically, falling significantly behind other ASEAN countries in the ratio of households living in poverty and availability of electricity and telecommunication. Further, one in four children leaves school without receiving secondary education due to poverty and issues related to ethnic minority groups, etc. As many as three million Myanmar nationals live abroad in search of better jobs and freedom. The country is currently undergoing political reform under President Thein Sein. Companies around the world find many reasons to believe that Myanmar is headed toward a growth path. These include an expansive land that is the second largest among ASEAN nations, abundant natural resources, and the ongoing development of social infrastructure and educational system. As such, many global companies are actively investing and making inroads in the country.
In terms of tourism as well, the rich nature and unique culture of Myanmar offer a tremendous potential as a travel destination. The government of Myanmar also positions tourism as a key pillar that underpins its economy, which is evident from its announcement of a master plan for its tourism policy during the WEF.
“Inclusion” as a Key Concept of the Meeting
The word “inclusion” was emphasized throughout the WEF on East Asia. This means to include all the people and organizations in society in the broader effort being pursued as a nation and community. Behind this is a reflection on the current lack of balance that resulted from past economic activities being focused on certain sectors or social groups, namely the concentration of the gains and benefits of those activities in the hands of a limited few, increasing disparity between life in the city and rural areas, and loss of opportunities for women.
The introduction of the notion of inclusion in the development of Myanmar will enable a more balanced growth for its society as a whole. Further, the resources and power possessed by rural areas and women offer promises as a new engine for growth.
Travel & Tourism High Level Meeting
On June 5, I participated in the Travel & Tourism High Level Meeting (Tourism Meeting)—the main purpose of my participation in the East Asia Summit—prior to the opening ceremony scheduled for the following day.
The theme of the meeting was “Building Myanmar’s Travel & Tourism Industry: Driving Growth and Job Creation.” Parties involved in tourism, tourism ministers, cabinet members, etc. of Myanmar and other countries in the Asia Pacific region participated in the meeting, with Simon Cooper (President, Asia Pacific, Marriott International), Tony Fernandes (CEO, Air Asia), U Htay Aung (Union Minister, Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism) and Sonu Shivdasani (President & founder, Soneva Group) serving as co-chair.
Discussions centered mainly on “extracting issues for the promotion of tourism in Myanmar and recommendations for the resolution of issues,” followed by workshops dealing with topics such as “The Road Map to Sustainable Tourism” and “Inclusive Tourism: Investment in People.”
High Hopes for Tourism
Tourism as an industry provides employment for 25 million people in the ASEAN region. Since tourism has a larger economic impact on peripheral fields compared to other industries, hopes are rising that it will drive sustained growth. Airfare and new flight routes provided by LCCs such as Air Asia, coupled with the growth of the middle class due to economic development, are encouraging young people—those who never even dreamed of traveling abroad until now—to travel. Myanmar and other developing countries are actively moving forward with the development of tourism-related infrastructure (airports, roads, hotels, etc.) that stands out as the centerpiece of their tourism policy, attracting investment from overseas and seeking other sources of support such as ODA and backing from international organizations. On the other hand, areas that are not as noticeable, including secondary transportation, land operation, and tour guides, which are nonetheless indispensable to the promotion of tourism and the maintenance and improvement of its quality, are left to the private sector to deal with. Another issue is the delay in the training of tourism-related human resources, such as tour guides and hotel staff.
Prospect of a Unified ASEAN Seems More Real than Ever
Prior to the meeting, the signing ceremony of an agreement related to the introduction of smart tourism was held between Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. ASEAN is currently moving in the direction of lowering the barriers at the national borders between participating nations. The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and the introduction of smart tourism, which was one of the centerpieces at the T & T High Level Meeting, represent this move.
While the first stage of smart tourism consists of mutual visa waiver between ASEAN nations to increase the interaction of people within the region, for the next stage a system where a traveler who obtained a visa to visit one of the ASEAN countries from outside the region is allowed to travel to other ASEAN countries is considered, much like Europe’s Schengen Treaty.
Meanwhile, the expressway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand that is currently under construction is expected to open for service by around 2015-2016. Myanmar, which shares a border with India, will eventually come to play a vital geopolitical role linking India and the countries of Indochina Peninsula. The integration of ASEAN is steadily moving forward in terms of the movement of both people and goods, through the mutual cooperation toward simplifying visa and immigration inspections as well as the expansion of infrastructure. I reaffirmed the need to be conscious of the relationship with ASEAN as a community, in addition to the relationship between Japan and individual countries, in expanding into the region.
Inclusion and Sustainability
As stated above, one of the most memorable aspects of the last meeting was the frequent use of the word “inclusion” in the sense that all the people and organizations in society will be included in the broader effort being pursued as a nation and community. Also, in the tourism meeting, the concept of “inclusive tourism” was put forward as a new approach to the promotion of tourism. Inclusive tourism is commonly known as tourism that does not exclude people with disabilities, similar to the concept of universal design. At this meeting, however, the importance of inclusive tourism was explained in the sense that the promotion of tourism should be pursued by the community as a whole, including those engaged in other industries such as agriculture, making sure the gains and benefits are shared by the entire community. It was also discussed in the context of encouraging support for women’s social advancement. This thinking resonated deeply within me as it is exactly what the JTB Group is promoting through its DMC initiative.
As for sustainability, the discussion touched on the importance of developing a tourism program that enables tourists to experience regional cultures first hand through community activities, instead of focusing only on the traditional tourist destinations. In addition, the need to have local residents other than those engaged in the tourism business participate in the effort was emphasized.
However, while community tourism is important, I believe countries in Southeast Asia other than Myanmar still do not fully utilize their unique and abundant tourism resources (nature, history, and culture). Therefore, it is necessary to develop tourism products that leverage local resources, and utilize the DMC functionality that the JTB Group is emphasizing and implementing. I believe ASEAN countries other than Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia especially have much to gain from destination marketing.
By participating in the Tourism Meeting, I reaffirmed the global interest in the tourism industry as a pillar of growth for the ASEAN countries, due to its high return on investment and ability to generate numerous employment opportunities. On the other hand, however, I was somewhat disappointed when, the day after the meeting, the co-chairs shared the key points on the development and promotion of sustainable tourism with participants from other fields, they mostly talked about development of tourism infrastructure and flight routes, making almost no mention of the intangible aspects of tourism other than the development of human resources. With respect to the development of human resources, their discussion mainly revolved around training mid-level management personnel at hotels, giving the impression that they had not much concrete ideas for the training of personnel for travel agencies, tourist guides, and promotion of local tourism efforts.
Nonetheless, I believe they deserve credit for having discussed the importance of inclusive tourism as an effort that should be pursued by the community as a whole, without sacrificing the lives of individual members of the community, and without focusing only on the development of infrastructure and ICT, especially when Myanmar is trying to build their travel and tourism industry almost from scratch after 20 years of stagnation. I strongly hope that Myanmar will incorporate the concept of DMC and evolve as a positive model, distinct from other emerging countries, that will serve as a bellwether of future tourism promotion.
(Reference) Outline of the Meeting
Date: June 5-7, 2013
Venue: Naypyidaw (Capital), Myanmar
Theme: “Courageous Transformation for Inclusion and Integration”