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Wed, 1 July 2020

Laos and Myanmar Unveil Domestic Tourism Strategy

The message that came out of the 7th MeTAG webinar, organised by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) in Bangkok last week, was clear - domestic tourism is going to play a very important role for countries looking to rebuild their tourism revenue.

COVID19 has caused over 508,000 deaths and, as of 04:33 GMT +7 on 1 July, there were 10,393,467 cases globally - an increase of over 193,669 since 05:43 GMT +7 on 30 June. That's roughly 8,420 new cases globally, every hour.

Many people around the world have had to take pay without leave, had their salaries reduced, or even lost their jobs. Just in the past few days, Qantas announced it would be laying off over 6,000 jobs, Airbus is to layoff 15,000, Air France has said it plans to cut 7,500 jobs, EasyJet, Jetstar Asia are also making reduction, as are many more companies. In June, Cathay Pacific said it had been losing between HK$2.5 and HK$3 billion dollars every month since February, and many other airlines are in a similar position.

All that is just a tiny, tiny fraction of the global economic problem that is gradually building and heading our way. Think of the street food vendors, the ice cream parlours, the restaurants, bars, tour operators, tuk tuk drivers, hotel workers, and so many others who all rely on tourism in some way or other to survive, and you begin to see why domestic tourism is so very important.

And COVID19 is not slowing down, the rate of infections is growing rapidly. On Monday (Geneva time), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said, "We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is, this is not even close to being over. Although many countries have made some progress, globally the pandemic is actually speeding up."

Laos, one of the countries represented at the 7th Mekong Tourism Advisory Group's (MeTAG) webinar, has already put together a tourism recovery action plan from now up to 2025 that is under consideration by the government.

As Laos' borders are closed and no international flights allowed into the country, the plan's short term proposal is to increase domestic tourism by extending the number of national holidays and encourage residents to explore the beauty that Laos has to offer.

Swimming pool at the La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang, Laos. Click to enlarge.

The country reopened its domestic tourism business on 27 May and domestic flights are now operating.

Mr. Somxay Sipaseuth, Laos' Director of Tourism Planning and Development, said, "For domestic tourists now, during the COVID period from January to March there were no movements. After that, especially the people from Vientiane are travelling to Vang Vieng, now it is full booking and the hotels and restaurants also discount, especially for Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang ... The number [of domestic tourists] we calculate from the branch office in each province is over two million, approximately."

All sectors of the industry are trying to attract a portion of those two million domestic tourists, from budget hotels to the very best 5-star hotels. The Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao reopened today, and Iain Langridge, Belmond's Divisional MD Asia Pacific, said in an exclusive video interview that the hotel has received a good number of forward bookings and even requests from some wealthy clients to book the whole property for a few days.

As it is currently the rainy season in Laos, traditionally also the low season for inbound tourism, it is a popular time of year for wealthy Laos people and expats to take a break and go on holiday to Europe, Australia or somewhere closer to home. This may represent an opportunity for the domestic tourism market in Laos, says Janina Bikova, an Ecotourism Advisor for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Laos.

"I think it is an interesting opportunity this year for Laos. Of course, we are all upset about the current situation, but I think we need to try to see the bright side, where it's possible," said Janina during the webinar. "Laos should embrace all those travellers who would normally not necessarily travel much in Laos, but this year are forced to travel in Laos because the borders are closed ... I hope that local travellers will learn more about the beauty of their country and therefore travel even more in the future within their own country. They still might travel long-haul, but a little bit less, and appreciate more what they have on their doorstep."

Susie Martin from the Laos Buffalo Dairy said they have seen an increase in domestic visitors from within Laos, but also highlighted the fact that numbers and revenue are much lower than normal. "It's nothing like our normal levels of tourism, and even though this is low season because it is holidays for the northern hemisphere, school holidays and even shorter school holidays in the southern hemisphere we are missing a lot of tourism revenue this year, but we are seeing some expats and local Laos people from Vientiane and Vang Vieng coming to visit," Susie said.

Myanmar, another beautiful country in the Mekong region, has already entered the second phase of its COVID19 tourism relief plan. The first phase, from April - June 2020, was mainly about survival and included self-finance and stimulus packages. The second phase, which runs from June to August, concerns re-opening and involves relaxing the lockdowns and quarantine measures. Phase three, from August 2020 to January 2021, targets re-launching and will focus on "Reinventing Tourism in Myanmar" and relaxing regulations.

Government buildings in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Picture by Steven Howard of TravelNewsAsia.com Click to enlarge.

Mr. Hla Myint, Director Promotions Department, Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, said that the country will start with domestic tourism and to help that initiative restrictions on foreigners travelling within the country have been lifted so they can move around and stay at hotels without issue.

"We do not have systematic data collection for domestic tourism, but last year we had approximately 1 million domestic tourists travelling across the country. Mostly for pilgrimage tourism and to beaches, they go to places to enjoy different kinds of food and sightseeing ... Now Myanmar has a larger middle class, they travel to beaches, they travel to Yangon and they travel to Mandalay. The culture has changed, before they used to stay in the houses of friends or relatives but now they stay in hotels," Mr. Hla Myint said.

Myanmar's flagship destinations are places such as Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle, and the truly stunning Ngapali Beach. But what are some of the less well known areas that the country is trying to promote to domestic tourists?

Kyi Kyi Aye, Senior Tourism Advisor, Myanmar Tourism Federation, said, "If we look at the new normal situation, people will not like to go to places where there are more people as they come out of the stay at home situation. Even in Yangon, there are many less known areas in Yangon where you can have pleasure and where you can escape from your home and have a safe destination ... Bagan is well known, but there are also many less unknown areas within Bagan where they do not need to visit the pilgrimage sites of pagodas and temples ... And there are many places where you can escape to in your own car. Now the demand is such that people would just like to escape from wherever they are in their own private vehicle."

One issue that the webinar highlighted was the problem every country faces in actually compiling data on domestic tourism. It is very difficult for a country to decide who is a domestic tourist and who is not. For example, how far do you have to travel from home before you become a domestic tourist, how much of a restaurant's revenue comes from tourists and how much is from people who live locally - what if a tourist is taken to a restaurant by a local, and with Airbnb becoming more popular, how do you calculate the local spend of tourists on shopping and transportation etc. Each country has its own methodology, but as domestic tourism becomes more and more important we may see some new and more high-tech solutions to this issue.

Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of MTCO, said, "I want to congratulate all the GMS countries for doing a tremendous job in really trying to put strategies in place and looking at creative ways, as well as travel bubbles, to build bilateral relationships with countries. As Hla Myint explained how complex that can be, you can't just say OK today I am going to open up from Myanmar to Thailand, there's a lot of different pieces that come into play to make that actually happen."

Consistency has been an issue many industry bodies, such as IATA, ICAO and UNWTO, have raised since COVID19, and Jens touched on this, saying, "We are facing some real inconsistency when it comes to policies. Trust is the new gold in building confidence, that doesn't help consumers who are looking to travel from anywhere in the world if it is from Europe, Australia or even in Asia, to any other place, when really you do not know how one country is different from the next ... When it comes to our region here, we are somewhat fortunate when we look at the [COVID19] numbers presented, its either very low numbers and high recovery and very low new infections, so I think we are in a region where we can really now fundamentally plan to restart tourism."

COVID19 certainly has a lot to answer for, but it can be beaten and absolutely must be beaten for any domestic, regional or long-haul tourism plans to work. To do that, each and everyone of us has a role to play in protecting not only ourselves, but others as well.

"It's six months since the virus started, it could be like a broken record to say exactly the same thing, but the same thing works - test, trace, isolate and quarantine cases, that's for the government to do. And second, hand hygiene for each individual, of course wearing masks and the other things that can be done, social distancing at individual level. It works and save lives. And that's still our message. But of course we should look for vaccines and the rest, but the simple and basic public health works and that's what we're saying," said Dr. Tedros of the WHO on Monday.

See latest Travel News, Video Interviews, Podcasts and other news regarding: COVID19, Domestic Tourism, Mekong, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos.

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