Are all tourist destinations in Asia ready for massive growth?

Are all tourist destinations in Asia ready for massive growth?

The ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) was held this past January in Manado, Indonesia, a beautiful and remote destination best known to divers. As Asia is the tourism growth region of the world, we expected to hear how private and public sector representatives are planning to leverage these opportunities in 2012.

However, growth — especially uncontrolled growth — can also bring problems. Just recently, Thong Khon, the tourism minister of Cambodia, declared an increased focus on China. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia has been increasing at annual rates of between 30% and 40% (38% in 2011), reaching about 200,000 in 2011, mainly due to non-stop flights from Beijing and Guangzhou to Phnom Penh. Cambodia hopes to attract at least one million Chinese tourists a year by 2020, Tourism Minister Thong Khon told the Cambodia Herald in January. 

This sounds like a good plan, especially since China is the fastest-growing tourism source market in the world, projected to have more than 100 million outbound tourists by 2020 according to the UNWTO.

Having visited Cambodia a few times in the past and as a fan of the culture, heritage and people (minus the horrible period of the Khmer Rouge), I was also able to witness how the temples around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap are flooded by tour groups, especially from South Korea, and soon probably from China. This all sounds good, especially if the tourist visa revenues will be put to work, but according to the Overseas Development Institute, the share of spending by tourists within a destination that reaches poor people can vary from less than 10% to a high of 30%. In Cambodia (Siem Reap), only 7%% of tourist spending actually stays in the community, compared to 26% in Vietnam (Da Nang) and 27% in Laos (Luang Prabang). Increasing the number by developing infrastructure is critical in order to protect the culture, heritage and people. 

Looking at China as a potential source of tourists to destinations that require sustainable protection and capacity building, the Boston Consulting Group published a report last year that found 95% of Chinese tourists are dissatisfied with current travel offerings from Chinese travel agents and tour operators. While this number may seem problematic at first, it actually is good news and provides great opportunities. According to the report, the new Chinese tourist is knowledgeable, sophisticated, technology-savvy and predominantly below 45 years of age. While many first-time Chinese tourists will see the benefits in joining traditional tour groups, the new breed of Chinese travelers are shifting towards more individual and personalized experiences. 

A much bigger opportunity, which hopefully will be discussed during next year’s ATF, is the opportunity that digital storytelling via social media will have, not only in inspiring people to experience a particular destination, but also in changing mindsets for more responsible travel behavior and responsible tourism development, which in the end will preserve these incredible and fragile cultures. While Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, Chinese social media sites — especially Sina Weibo (micro-blogging) — is becoming a powerful means to communicate and influence consumers.