ASEAN Tourism Forum 2016: A Unified Step Towards Sustainability

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A showcase of industry, a milestone in culture and diversity, and a huge leap in regional unity – these words summarize the conduct of the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2016, which was held in Manila, Philippines from January 18 to 22, and attended by 2,620 delegates from across the globe, including 1,000 ASEAN exhibitors, 457 international buyers, and 175 members of the international press.

An annual event involving all the tourism industry sectors of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Tourism Forum or ATF 2016 is a cooperative regional effort to promote the ten member nations of ASEAN, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, as a single tourist destination featuring the best in food, culture, destination, and adventure. On its 35th year, the hosting of ATF has been rotated among the member countries since its inauguration in Malaysia in 1981, with Myanmar as the 2015 host, and Singapore to host the prestigious event at the same time next year.

As this year’s host, the Philippines pulled out all the stops to convey the essence of Filipino hospitality and creativity to all the delegates, starting with the Opening Ceremony held at the Philippine International Convention Center, which was graced by no less than Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. In his speech before ambassadors, ASEAN tourism ministers, heads of ASEAN NTOs, ATF delegates, and the world media, Aquino cited the theme for this year’s forum, “One Community for Sustainability,” and stressed the need into tap to the region’s “rich potential for tourism” which “depends largely on sustainability.”

In a classic way of welcoming visitors to the country, the guests were treated to a great number of stage performances throughout the evening, starting with song numbers from the Ryan Cayabyab Singers, ASEAN dance numbers from the Sindhaw Philippines Performing Arts Guild, and an awe-inspiring shadow performance from the award-winning group El Gamma Penumbra during the Opening Ceremony. Right after, the delegates were led to the Reception Hall for the Welcoming Reception, which had as its highlight a Cultural Presentation featuring the joyful and resilient spirit of the Filipino people in such talents as Junior New System, the Buganda Dancers, sopranos Myramae Meneses and Princess Virtudazo, and West End actress and Philippine pop singer Rachelle Ann Go.

Cuisine also played a key role throughout the progress of ATF 2016, as social events were a chance for host institutions or organizations to present their fare to the world’s palate. The Welcoming Reception hosted by the Philippines, for example, included in its menu vinegar-infused “kinilaw,” fresh vegetable rolls and fried pork pockets, while other NTOs like those of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, took to their cookbooks for samplings of chicken rice, tom yum, and beef rendang for their social lunches and evening cocktails.

In “Food and Culture: A New Sustainable Tourism Product for ASEAN,” one of the first meetings during ATF 2016 and organized by the Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), food experts and enthusiasts from across the region took turns in identifying food as both a defining and unifying factor in ASEAN tourism. In particular, speakers Felice Prudente Sta. Maria and Spanky Hizon Enriquez delved into the wonders of Philippine cuisine and its roots in Southeast Asian techniques and ingredients, while AIM’s Michael Angelo Cortez and Malaysia’s Dr. Nirwan Noh focused on the region’s development of sustainable tourism frameworks rooted in food, with Dr. Noh giving particular attention to halal-certified establishments.

But beyond the world of sparkling cutlery, conversations over drinks, and exchanges of thoughts on local tastes, the ASEAN Tourism Forum was primarily a formal opportunity for governments and businesses to reestablish ties and formalize agreements relating to tourism efforts between the region and the rest of the world. Throughout ATF week, meetings were conducted between the ten member-nations’ tourism ministers, heads of the National Tourism Organizations (NTOs), the ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA), various ASEAN airlines, as well as government representatives from the countries of China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Russia. Conferences were also mounted to discuss tourism careers in the region, as well as assessment and certification programs for tourism professionals within the countries concerned.

ATF is also the established venue for Travel Exchange (TRAVEX), the longest-running annual ASEAN leisure travel trade event, which showcased the largest contingent of ASEAN sellers including NTOs, hotel and resort properties, airlines, travel agencies, and other tourism industry players. The highlight of TRAVEX were the day-long, one-on-one, business-to-business meetings held at the SMX Convention Center – a dedicated platform for travel and tourism suppliers throughout ASEAN to explore business opportunities with international buyers, and vice versa, through scheduled appointments.

Unlike other official trade shows, TRAVEX offered a closely controlled meeting place for both ASEAN-based sellers and counterpart buyers from around the world, with the schedule of appointments monitored to ensure order and efficiency in the conduct of business. These meetings were held during the last two days of the ATF, in the 467 exhibiting booths scattered throughout 9,130 square meters of the convention center space. Most of the booths were government and corporate sellers from the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, servicing up to 457 buyers from 64 countries. According to a release, almost half of the buyer-delegates hailed from the Asia-Pacific region, with European buyers almost at the same percentage, while the largest number of buyers per country came from Germany, India, and the United States of America.

And while business deals were being conducted in the halls of the convention center, the briefing rooms of ATF 2016 were alive with queries from the international press, as the NTOs of all the ASEAN member-countries took turns presenting their nations’ tourism performance and accomplishments for the past year, as well as the landmark programs they have mounted for 2016. Of note is the apparent rise in tourism arrivals in the region for 2015, as well as fruitful inter-ASEAN statistics especially with arrivals to rising destinations such as Myanmar and Laos. Indonesia, meanwhile, remains unfazed despite the terrorist attacks in the capital of Jakarta just days before the ATF.

Before long, business meetings were at an end, and media sessions were being concluded, but not without a proper closing event celebrating the forum’s success. The ATF 2016 Closing Ceremony held at the Mindanao Ballroom of the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, and attended by industry movers and members of the press, was graced by the tourism ministers of the ten ASEAN member-nations, their representatives, the ASEAN Secretary-General, and tourism officials from China, Japan, and South Korea. During the same ceremony, in the spirit of the ATF 2016 theme, accommodation properties from throughout ASEAN were also awarded the ASEAN Green Hotel and ASEAN Homestay Awards. In total, 89 hotel and resort properties, and 31 homestays were given plaques for their adoption of environmentally-friendly principles in business practices.

But more importantly, the Closing Ceremony saw the formal unveiling of the 10-year ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan for 2016-2025. A follow-up to the 2011-2015 strategic plan which laid the groundwork to promote the ASEAN as a single destination, the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-2025 has as its vision the region as a “quality tourism destination offering a unique, diverse ASEAN experience.” To begin this worthwhile effort, the tourism ministers also launched during the event the Cruise Southeast Asia brand, which will run across the waters of the region to boost tourism from within and outside the ASEAN.

As ASEAN’s premier tourism promotions event, the ATF is expected to push economic growth in the region on many fronts. Philippine Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr. says the growth will soon be felt in the various industry sectors as soon as the region starts to reap huge dividends from attracting global attention to its rich and diverse resources, which the forum promotes as one complete package. “Our region is characterized by ‘coopetition’ – a cooperative collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country,” said the Secretary before passing the torch to Leong Yue Kheong, Assistant Chief Executive of the Singapore Tourism Board. The Philippines, along with the rest of the world, now looks forward to the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Singapore next year, as well as the fruits of ASEAN tourism in the economies, professions, and cultures of the Southeast Asian nations in the future.

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