Commentary / World

ASEAN: moving beyond terrorism fears

by Curtis S. Chin

Every year, this time of year, since 2001, thoughts in my longtime hometown of New York turn again to the tragedy of Sept. 11, when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Thousands were killed and lives and livelihoods were sent reeling. Here in Asia, the travel and tourism industry was not spared, as Japanese and other nationalities joined Europeans and Americans in canceling business and leisure trips.

Economies and businesses slowly recovered. Then, in October 2002 and October 2005, terrorist bombings devastated parts of the Indonesian resort island of Bali, killing hundreds of tourists and residents. Tourism receipts again spiraled downward.

Now, fears have been raised again about travel to Southeast Asia. Where once it might have been Indonesia, or the Philippines given that nation’s long-standing struggles with separatists on the island of Mindanao, this time it was Thailand.

After the bombing of a revered religious shrine in central Bangkok, which injured more than 100 people and killed 20 — many of ethnic Chinese origin — Hong Kong quickly raised its “Outbound Travel Alert” for Bangkok to red. “Residents intending to visit Thailand (Bangkok) should adjust their travel plans and avoid non-essential travel, including leisure travel,” said the official Hong Kong government news release.

Arrests and investigations continue to play out as to who was behind the attack on the Erawan Shrine, and whether an “international terrorist group” was involved. Regardless, steps will need to be taken on fundamental traveler safety and security issues, including, for example, addressing broken surveillance cameras, and other shortcomings uncovered so far. And such steps must be taken not just for tourists, but for a city’s own citizens. All lives matter, tourist or resident.

So, what more can all the nations of Southeast Asia do as a region to keep travel and tourism — including spending by Japanese and other visitors — a key economic contributor to local businesses and communities?

The 10 countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have committed in the past to a vision of “responsible, sustainable and inclusive tourism development.” The need for greater connectivity of Southeast Asia’s diversity of destinations also will be underscored in an “ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan, 2016-2020” to be launched at the 2016 ASEAN Tourism Forum to be held in the Philippines.

But ensuring greater information sharing and other steps to ensure visitor safety is also critical. Policymakers also should recommit to three broad steps to ensure Southeast Asia remains competitive, individually and collectively, and safe as a destination.

First, ASEAN member nations must work to build greater flexibility and segmentation into their efforts. The ability of hotels and tour operators, among others, to adapt is critical particularly as the visitor mix evolves. Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions may well come to the forefront for some destinations. The growing numbers of Chinese tourists and the need to tailor marketing and outreach efforts to their needs, just as has been done for Japanese visitors in the past, is one clear trend that can be leveraged.

Chinese travelers already now make up about 25 percent of all foreign visitors annually to Thailand, and their presences is being felt across the region. More than 4 million visitors from China traveled to Thailand in the first half of this year alone, and those numbers were expected to grow, prior to the recent bombing.

Second, all 10 nations of ASEAN must continue to invest in their product offering. This must include finding funds for the maintenance of existing destinations as well as the establishment of new ones. While not every nation will have the resources of a Singapore to fund landmark new attractions such as the city-state’s award-winning Gardens by the Bay, investment and a supporting regulatory environment is critical to ensure continued competitiveness.

The need for resources for both development and maintenance also is best addressed by partnership with and involvement of the private sector. Development of a corruption-free, enabling environment for business to succeed must be a clear priority. The upcoming “2015 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix” is just one example of a corporate-supported travel attraction and how public and private sectors can work together. And as hotels and restaurants must reinvest in their properties, so too must government-owned attractions, from national parks to state-funded museums and airports.

And third, all of ASEAN must recognize that the region’s sustained attractiveness will be driven by its residents and the services they provide — and then act accordingly. At the heart of Southeast Asia’s attractiveness as a destination must be its people — more than buildings or beaches, no matter how historic or attractive. Educational investments must follow as well as access to capital, with clear metrics for success.

For emerging destinations in particular, such as Laos and Myanmar, this focus on human resources and capacity building is as critical as their focus on building core physical infrastructure. Community involvement also will be important to build support for nascent travel and tourism efforts and to help ensure tourism dollars stay in the community. Even the richest of ASEAN’s member-states also must address the issue of human capital as higher paying industries draw people away.

Terrorism experts speculated that soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks sent the travel industry worldwide spiraling downward, operatives from the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah met in a southern Thailand hotel room to begin plans to attack “soft targets” frequented by tourists. The deadly Bali nightclub bombing followed some 10 months later.

Today, questions continue in Thailand as to whether the recent attack on the Erawan Shrine was a blowback from the Thai government’s forced deportation to China of more than 100 members of the Uighur community, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China’s far western Xinjiang region.

Pessimistic views compete with more pleasant images from the nation’s long-standing “Amazing Thailand” tourism promotions. Yet, whether or not the recent Bangkok bombing is deemed a “terrorist” attack, one lesson from past crises in this “Land of Smiles” is that the nation’s tourism sector will recover and move forward.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has seen an increasing number of travelers, rising expenditures and an evolving tourism mix, driven in part by visitors from China despite past tragedies, from Bali to Bangkok. New travel destinations in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam have now joined long-established ones such as Cambodia’s ancient Khmer temples and Thailand’s world famous beaches in attracting Chinese tourists.

Even amid terrorism worries, Southeast Asia’s attractiveness as a destination rightly endures. Tourism can more than survive. It can continue to thrive, attracting growing numbers from Hong Kong, China and elsewhere, even as we mourn the loss of life at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine.

But, a focus on strengthened security and basic law and order will be fundamental to the sustained growth of any ASEAN member-state’s tourism sector, including Thailand’s. Vigilance and preparation are key. And so too, lessons must be learned and acted upon.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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