Southeast Asia, with its great outdoors and rich, diverse culture, has the potential to be a strong global brand in tourism, especially when the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comes up with a Schengen-like single visa for visitors and as infrastructure spending boosts capacity to host visitors. From the beaches of Bali, Boracay and Phuket, to the urban skylines of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the palaces and temples of Bangkok and Angkor Wat, this region could be the multi-faceted tropical destination.

Promoting ASEAN as a single tourist destination is indeed part of the region’s roadmap and aside from allowing visitors to travel throughout the region using a single visa in the future, initiatives have been mapped out to develop a set of tourism standards with a certification process, enabling tourism professionals to work in any of the ASEAN member states. Some countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have done very well attracting hordes of tourists on their own but as a region, ASEAN needs a more collective branding – a series of tourism campaigns that will go viral and bring visitors to multiple countries. The wholesale tourism business via “MICE” – meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions – could be integral to the region’s bid to grab a greater market share.

Then, there is the huge infrastructure requirement, which some countries like the Philippines are trying to fill using the public-private partnership framework. In a recent report titled “ASEAN’s half a trillion dollar infrastructure opportunity,” Goldman Sachs estimated the region’s infrastructure needs through 2020 at US$ 550 billion, higher than current government estimates. But Goldman Sachs sees this as a golden opportunity, explaining that the infrastructure build-out could directly contribute to investment demand and therefore to economic growth, encourage other investment, help boost manufacturing investment and improve productivity growth by reducing travel times, freight costs, power costs and communication costs.

The region’s topography means it would be difficult to build a European-like inter-state railway and road network outside mainland Indochina (comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and west Malaysia). But establishing a network of nautical highways across maritime destinations is a viable option, one that could give rise to cruise packages for international tourists looking for a Far East version of a Mediterranean or Bahamas cruise. The entry of low-cost carriers has depressed passenger shipping volumes, but it’s possible that a heightened demand for Southeast cruises could open a new market for maritime vessel operators.

But ASEAN must likewise be wary of overdevelopment. “A victim of its own success” is the expression often used to describe any place that has become too popular to the extent of losing its soul. I can think of a few tourism hotspots in my own country, the Philippines, which were a lot more charming before throngs of outsiders came.

To ensure development is sustainable, eco-tourism should be a core concern for investors, regulators, the local community and tourists. Indeed, it is already becoming an increasing concern for consumers. When the travel website TripAdvisor carried out a survey among its members in April 2012, 71% said they planned to make more eco-friendly choices in the next 12 months, compared to 65% that did so in the previous 12 months. Social media is also playing a key role, exposing bad practices and extolling good ones. Last summer, a photograph of a girl riding on a whaleshark in Cebu, Philippines, as if this marine creature were a surfboard, went viral, prompting the local government and community to rethink regulations on whaleshark interaction.

Any blueprint on sustainable tourism must also take into account the welfare of the community. By its very nature, tourism has a large multiplier effect, creating incomes even for semi-skilled workers – from the chambermaid who cleans the hotel room, to the gardener or the beverage vendor. As the ASEAN roadmap states, there must be increased quality of life and opportunities for residents through responsible and sustainable tourism development.

To attract high-spending but risk-averse Western tourists, ASEAN also needs to work harder at disaster preparedness and at improving law and order. While there are some things that can’t be predicted – like the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Phuket and Aceh (as well as Sri Lanka, India and Maldives) – there could be a better-coordinated regional resource mobilization for risk mitigation and recovery efforts. I also hope that regulators will support the rise of the ASEAN tourism brand while strengthening defence mechanisms against the ugly peripheral businesses like drugs and human trafficking.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that intra-regional travel will grow by leaps and bounds as consumer affluence in the region rises. Recent increases in cross-border investment by regional airlines, and commitments to allow some airlines to increase passenger loads, should drive down costs and thus benefit consumers. Measures should also be put in place to encourage ASEAN residents to travel across the region. Reduced rates in museums, or discounts on rail travel, are just some examples of the incentives we could introduce. If we’re going to start thinking “ASEAN”, we’d better start thinking local and global in the same breath.

Author: Maria Doris C. Dumlao is a Senior Business Reporter at the Philippines Daily Inquirer and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on South-East Asia

 Image: A tourist takes photographs in Yangon, Myanmar REUTERS/Minzayar