Editor’s Note:
Skift launched a new series, Gateway, as we broaden our news coverage geographically with first-hand, original stories from correspondents embedded in cities around the world.

We are featuring regular reports several times per week from Beijing, Singapore, Caracas and Cape Town, and look for us to add other cities soon. Gateway Singapore, for example, signifies that the reporter is writing from that city although her coverage of the business of travel will meander to other locales in the region. Read about the series here, and check out all the stories in the series here.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will mark its 50th anniversary in August and the Jakarta-based organization has unimaginatively launched a Visit ASEAN@50: Golden Celebration tourism campaign.

This is the third Visit ASEAN year. The first was in 1992 when ASEAN turned 25; the second was the odd Visit ASEAN Millennium Year 2002.

Many industry players yawn at another Visit ASEAN Year in a region that has produced a bumper crop of visit years since Thailand did the first in 1980. These include Visit Malaysia Year 1990, Visit Indonesia Year 1991, Visit Myanmar Year 1996, Visit Laos Year 2000, and Visit Vietnam Year 2002.

Critics believe the public sector may be better off focusing on facilitating growth, including working on easing visa restrictions, deregulating the skies, and building tourism infrastructure. On this, ASEAN scores highly ever since it formalised tourism cooperation in 1976 with the formation of a subcommittee on tourism under the ASEAN Committee on Trade and Tourism.

The Track Record Isn’t Good

But its efforts at marketing ASEAN as a single yet diverse destination have been slipshod at best.

“They were badly thought-out, with little forward planning,” says David Kevan, a director at tour operator Chic Locations UK which sends luxury clients to Southeast Asia. “In most of Europe, the term ‘ASEAN’ is not widely used or known, especially with customers who are more familiar with Southeast Asia, so it has little publicity value and probably confuses more than assists.”

One of the problems with the campaign is a a lack of marketing dollars despite tourism contributing a lot to ASEAN’s economy. According to the World Travel Travel & Tourism Council, the 10 ASEAN nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – depend on tourism to drive their economies more than any other region of the world. Tourism contributed 12.4 percent of the region’s GDP in 2015, when 109 million international arrivals were recorded, and that was 3 to 4 percentage points higher than Europe or the Americas.

Yet ASEAN has always been reluctant to disclose how much it spends on marketing the region as a single yet diverse destination. And if anyone is hoping for a real tourism marketing splash this year, so far it’s been modest, comprising an e-brochure of 50 ‘special’ ASEAN multi-destination packages picked by the 10 tourism boards.

There are promises of media familiarization trips, campaign promotion at key travel trade shows, and cooperative marketing programmes with trade/media, which it already does. The organization also points to upcoming print, online, and social media campaigns and additional public relations and marketing activities throughout 2017.

But when asked what is the marketing budget for the campaign, there is no reply.

A Very Old-School Approach

Another problem is that largely an older generation leads the ASEAN bureaucracy. “It (the campaign) will be good but not good enough. The issue is that most of the decision-makers were educated or have work experiences from the 20th century, but now we are in the 21st century,” says Chanin Donavanik, chairman of hotel chain Dusit International, based in Bangkok.

But the private sector in the region has these decision-makers to thank for facilitating tourism growth in areas that really matter, including ratifying an open-skies agreement that has more than doubled the annual air seat capacity to and within ASEAN countries over the last 10 years, and a visa-free policy for ASEAN nationals. Intra-ASEAN travel accounts for around half of visitors to ASEAN countries and this backyard market, along with China and India, will continue to grow as its middle class bulges and low cost carriers open new routes and offer cheap airfares in the region.

The organization is also stepping up efforts to develop Southeast Asia cruising, with a joint declaration to “spur port and destination development in the region.”

Infrastructure is a Major Need

ASEAN has invested in infrastructure although investment as a share of GDP has not returned to pre-1997 levels in most ASEAN economies, notes Fraser Thompson, director of strategy advisory firm AlphaBeta. “More than $110 billion – roughly two to six times the annual spend – has to be invested yearly to address infrastructure needs.”

The year 1997 was when the financial crisis in Southeast Asia took hold.

In building ASEAN’s tourism infrastructure, WTTC ranks the region as only ahead of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, with investment requirements differing from country to country. Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines, for example, must increase accommodation, airport capacity and tourist facilities, while more established tourism economies such as Indonesia and Singapore need to reinvest, says WTTC.

ASEAN also needs to focus on developing more skilled travel and tourism professionals, says Pacific Asia Travel Association CEO Mario Hardy.

There are enough people but not enough talent to match the industry’s rate of growth. “A region of over 600 million, mostly young and ambitious people, who are embracing technology faster than most other regions, is an enormous opportunity,” added AlphaBeta’s Thompson.

Other sources interviewed point out the need to manage growth — 121 million arrivals are targeted for 2017 — enforce sustainable tourism development practices, diversify sources of arrivals and spread the benefits of tourism to wider communities, all of which require governmental commitment

With a wish list this long, ASEAN may be better off leaving marketing to the private sector and concentrate on pushing these other goals.

Or, on the other hand, the organization should come up with a respectable marketing budget that tourism deserves and employ real professionals to deal with issues such as branding and marketing for the long term.

Photo Credit: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is undertaking a tourism marketing campaign in 2017 to mark its 50th anniversary. Tourism Authority of Thailand