SINGAPORE: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hopes to increase its number of international arrivals by 10 per cent to 121 million, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wed (Jan 18) at the ASEAN Tourism Forum held at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Speaking at the first event hosted by Singapore during ASEAN’s 50th anniversary year, Mr Lee also suggested three ways to promote the region as a single, unified travel destination: strengthening air links, building up cruise tourism and developing talent.
“Tourism is one area where by working together, we can get win-win benefits, growing our economies, creating jobs, and drawing our peoples together,” he said. “There is huge potential in tourism.”
“Because ASEAN countries have fast growing middle classes, and as our people become better off (and) more affluent, more of them want to travel to see the world. At the same time, ASEAN itself offers an enormous richness of attractions… That is why tourists from around the world want to visit Southeast Asia.”
Mr Lee said beyond jointly marketing campaigns and promotions like “Visit ASEAN@50”, member countries must also work together to do the “less glamorous behind the scenes hard work” to reduce barriers and red tape, and create the basis for a vibrant tourism industry.
WORKING TOGETHER ACROSS LAND, AIR, SEA
Firstly, ASEAN must strengthen its air links, said Mr Lee, noting that affordable and convenient air travel was one of the most important factors driving tourism growth.
Even though the annual air seat capacity of flights to and within ASEAN has more than doubled since 2007, there remains huge potential for tourist numbers and air passengers to grow further, said Mr Lee.
“All ASEAN member countries have ratified an Open Skies Agreement. We therefore look forward to more flights, and more tourists,” he added.
Mr Lee said the sector of cruise tourism also has immense potential for development.
“ASEAN is well placed to promote cruise tourism. We have archipelagos to rival the Aegean, Caribbean, or South Pacific; year-round tropical weather, calm waters; diverse and attractive destinations within short sailing distances,” he said.
“But developing cruise tourism is a multi-lateral effort. We need to develop port infrastructure to receive bigger and newer ships and work with cruise providers to create attractive itineraries with multiple stops for tourists.”
“Singapore is happy to be the lead coordinator for the ASEAN Cruise Development Initiative,” said Mr Lee. “We need to work together closely to make these happen, and harness opportunities under the ‘Cruise Southeast Asia’ brand.”
Talent must also be developed across the region, he added.
“Our workers also need specific skills, to run hotels properly, manage inventories and logistics, supply guides and interpreters, so that we can deliver the high standards international tourists are accustomed to,” said Mr Lee. “It is win-win, because investing in our workers also create opportunities and good jobs for our people.”
“Many ASEAN countries have made human development a key priority. Singapore is glad to make a modest contribution to the effort, with initiatives like the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute, which trains young people for jobs in the tourism industry,” he noted.
“Therefore, I am pleased that the ASEAN Tourism Research Association (ATRA) will be offering two post-graduate scholarship schemes, and that four universities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have pledged to offer scholarships to support the scheme.”
ASEAN “AN IMPORTANT LIFE RAFT” IN UNCERTAIN TIMES: PM LEE
Also in his speech, Mr Lee also told the forum how it was “all the more” important for ASEAN to cooperate in “these uncertain times”.
“2016 saw Britain vote for Brexit in a referendum, the US elect a non-establishment candidate as its next President, and Europe distracted by popular anxiety about jobs and immigrants, and doubts about the EU project,” he said. “In many countries, the mood is to go it alone, unilaterally push for their own interests, and doubt the value of mutual give and take in a rules-based international order.”
“In this uncertain global environment, ASEAN is an important life raft for all of us,” said Mr Lee. “ASEAN members have worked steadily and hard over the decades, to build up our cooperation and benefit one another... We have made regional cooperation a success in Southeast Asia."
But he also noted that a lot more work needed to be done in ASEAN.
“In the economic field, we have to press on to deepen economic integration and boost connectivity among ASEAN countries, for example through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC),” said Mr Lee.
“In security and counter-terrorism, we have to work more closely to share intelligence, counter extremist ideology and disrupt terrorist networks… In social and cultural areas, we should continue to foster people- to-people ties.”
Added Mr Lee: “ASEAN’s objectives are not as ambitious as the EU’s, but if ASEAN can build on what we have achieved, and deepen our cooperation across the board, all our peoples will benefit.”
“Through greater openness and mutual interdependence, we generate more opportunities and prosperity all round,” he concluded.