The official beginning of the One ASEAN Community is almost here – we are only a few months away – yet so much still remains to be done to establish true regional integration. In the case of travel in the region, discussions have been held and some actions made, but we are far from achieving our goals of facilitating travel in ASEAN.
We need concrete actions. For one, we need to work on easing access to and within ASEAN. Tourism has been identified as a key revenue generator by every ASEAN country, yet the entry rules at most of our borders seem to suggest otherwise. If we want more tourists from outside the region to come and spend their dollars in ASEAN, and thereby contribute to the growth of our economy, doesn’t it follow that we should ease access for them?
We have to make ASEAN more welcoming to tourists, and perhaps the introduction of a common ASEAN visa, similar to Europe’s Schengen visa, is a solution. This should include the building of an electronic visa system for all ASEAN countries for seamless border control. There is also a need to set up dedicated ASEAN immigration lanes at all international airports of member countries. While there have been early movers in this – the airports of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, for example – we need all other international airports in the region to follow suit.
We also need to take concrete steps to build the ASEAN brand. What does ASEAN stand for, and what is our unique selling point? Branding is central to attracting tourists, and we need to find ways to build a positive brand for ASEAN. Relatedly, it is imperative that we raise awareness about ASEAN. Perhaps we can start by ensuring that the ASEAN flag is displayed alongside the national flags at the embassies of ASEAN countries and in schools across the region. Or through cultural exchanges and intra-ASEAN internship programs that provide students and graduates regional work experience.
We must ensure that we raise awareness about ASEAN and the progress of integration through regionally-coordinated campaigns on multiple channels and through traditional and social media so that our message gets across to young people, households and businesses and perhaps spur them into action.
Plans for ASEAN would be difficult to effect if the very institutions tasked to oversee implementation are weak. The governments of ASEAN as well as the private sector need to support the strengthening of these ASEAN institutions through the creation of commissions, or working groups, of businesses that are committed to regional development – tourism included – and focus on issues and solutions. We need to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat through increased funding that would allow it to, among others, attract the sharpest minds in the region and add to its currently overstretched staff.
To truly facilitate travel in ASEAN, all stakeholders in the region need to work together, to discuss and share views on how best to push forward the improvements that are so desperately needed. And we need to start now.
The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015 is available here.
Author: Tony Fernandes, Group CEO, AirAsia
Image: Tourists gather near the foot of the haze-covered landmark Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad