ASEAN Tourism Forum 2019: The Latest News and Notes From Southeast Asia

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2019's Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Asian Tourism Forum, in Vietnam: PHOTO: 2019's Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Asian Tourism Forum, in Vietnam. (Photo by Will McGough)

The 38th annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asian Tourism Forum (ATF), took place this January in Vietnam, bringing together diplomats, tourism delegates and media from the ten member nations—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—to discuss the present and future of travel in the region.

This year’s theme, “The Power of One,” highlighted the country’s desire to work together as a region to responsibly develop and foster tourism.

“ATF 2019 is all about embracing strength in unity,” said H.E. Nguyen Ngoc Thien, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam. “Together, ASEAN Member States can build a stronger and more powerful position on the world stage with meaningful initiatives that boost tourism growth while preserving our unique and collective heritage, identity and culture for the next generation to experience.”

Much of the enthusiasm the past year, including the hiring of a collective marketing agency and the introduction of collaborative advertising, has been focused on China, Japan and Korea. But as flight connectivity from North America continues to strengthen alongside on-the-ground infrastructure improvements, Southeast Asia is increasing its appeal to the U.S. market.

Here’s a country by country breakdown of what’s happening throughout the region:


While Brunei is mostly focused on promoting its cultural and Islamic tourism packages (Bandar Seri Begawan has been named the Capital of Islamic Culture in Asia for 2019), it hasn’t completely forgotten about North America.

In fact, the country has a lot of outdoor opportunities that typically appeal to Western travelers: the country is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain (Ulu Temburong National Park), and boasts an abundance of shipwrecks and other PADI-recommended diving opportunities. Brunei recently completed an overhaul and expansion of its international airport, with direct flights from Manila, Singapore, Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur.


New flight connectivity in 2019 will drastically improve access and connections to Cambodia for international travelers, with Cambodia Airways, Philippines Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Air China all announcing new routes. An expanded runway at Siem Reap should lead to more direct, long-haul flights from big markets. Tourism continues to grow in Cambodia, with 6.2 million projected arrivals in 2018.


Tourism is growing remarkably in Indonesia. The country is targeting 20 million visitors this year after drawing approximately 13 million in 2017—a desired increase that shows strong investment within the visitor sector. But along with the increase comes a desire to disperse travelers throughout the country. This has resulted in a campaign called “10 New Bali’s” promoting lesser-known destinations including Lake Toba and Borobudur, to shed light on undervisited locations as well as spread out the economic and environmental impacts of tourism.


The “Visit Laos Year 2018” Campaign was designed to promote both primary and secondary cities, such as Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Champasak, Xiengkhouang, Luang Namtha, and Khammouane.

This year, there’s an effort to highlight the country’s cultural festivals, including Boun Kinchieng (Hmong new year), Elephant Festival, Lao New Year (Water Festival), and the Rocket Festival. More infrastructure improvements are on the way, most notably upgrading all four of its international airports—Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet—and a high-speed train connecting China to Laos in 2021.


Malaysia played perhaps the largest role in promoting Southeast Asia as a single region—it produced the ASEAN Tourism Packages 2019-2020, comprising 69 multi-country travel packages from 38 travel agents.

For itself, Malaysia saw growth in visitor arrivals, thanks in part to an increase in connectivity and flights via Penang. One surprise adventure travel segment being pushed by the country is sport fishing—already known for its diving, Malaysia is now promoting its deep-sea fishing opportunities in Port Dickson, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak, among others.


After a booming start to tourism in 2012, visitation has mellowed out in recent years, soothing concerns that the country could become overcrowded. In fact, tourism officials say Myanmar is now taking a measured approach, holding off on opening additional border crossings until the country has further upgraded its services (last year, the country welcomed 3.5 million visitors).

The U.S. remains outside of the top ten in visitor arrivals, making it one of the more mysterious and interesting destinations for North American travelers: Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, and Mandalay remain the main attractions under its new tourism brand “Myanmar: Be Enchanted.”


Of all the Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines has arguably the best connection with the U.S. thanks to its diplomatic relations as well as its direct flights from both the east (New York) and west coasts (L.A.) via Philippines Airlines. New airports—Bohol-Panglao International Airport, Mactan Cebu International Airport and Cagayan North International Airport—are a common theme in the Philippines, and it’s also working on its connections within the region, including a Philippines Airline Manila to Hanoi direct flight starting on April 1, 2019.

Despite a record-setting 2018 in terms of tourism numbers, sustainability is also on the mind of the country. After three phases of rehabilitation (overcrowding), the country announced it reopened Boracay with a series of stipulations, including a cap on daily visitors.


Thailand’s main focus in 2019 is to stimulate the economy of rural areas by promoting emerging tourism destinations outside the normal circuit of Bangkok, Chang Mai and the southern islands and beaches.

On the administrative side, Thailand is looking to become a pioneer in requiring travel insurance for all visitors taking part in “challenging activities” like mountain climbing and diving. According to TTG News, the “surging visitor numbers into Thailand has intensified the challenge of unpaid medical treatment fees racked up by foreign visitors while vacationing in the country.” If implemented, this would be an interesting precedent to watch going forward as other countries would surely follow.


Singapore welcomed 16.9 million visitors from January to November last year, an increase of 6.6 percent from the same period in 2017. Sentosa Island, now revealed to the world after hosting the historic Trump-Kim summit last year, is set to undergo a rejuvenation plan that will include overhauls of the Pulau Brani and Tanjong Pagar waterfronts, including a new pedestrian thoroughfare, new hotels and new attractions. Food and art continue to be the major draws for Singapore.


Vietnam achieved a 20 percent increase in tourism arrivals in 2018, the highest growth among ASEAN countries. The country was awarded the “Asia’s Leading Destination 2018” and “Asia’s Best Golf Destination 2018” by World Travel Awards and World Golf Awards, respectively.

Accessibility throughout the country continues to improve—the Northern Highlands, for example, are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa. Previously unknown destinations, such as Phu Quoc, are now on the international radar, primed to compete with the island paradises of Thailand and the Philippines.

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