The theme suggests that it is possible to transform travel and in doing so transform lives. Travel has been ingrained in the economies of the Mekong region countries for decades with Thailand the leading light, now heading for 38 million tourists annually, followed by Vietnam expecting to close 2018 with 15.5 million visits.
Laos is sandwiched in between these two Mekong region giants and the push to promote overland travel turns its highways into travel corridors with hardly a dollar dropped by the wayside.
Transforming travel could mean shifting from sightseeing trips, that cocoon tourists in air-conditioned buses covering hundreds of kilometres in a single day, to slow tourism involving communities and the crucial element of learning from one another.
That kind of travel transformation would certainly transform lives by leaving more foreign exchange earnings with communities instead of being stashed in the bulging bank accounts of major travel or hospitality corporations.
The Mekong Tourism Forum sets itself apart from other events for just that reason. It looks at ways to reinvent tourism to make it a more personal and shared experience and most of all relevant to villages and rural communities.
Yet the challenges are immense for the MTF organisers, who have to juggle commercial interest and avoid unmentionable subjects that threaten the very existence of the Mekong region.
It’s an association of six countries – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar Thailand and Vietnam – but over the years and tied to a pauper’s budget the Mekong Tourism Office relies on good will volunteerism. It’s very existence is often called into question and that is likely to continue as China eyes a bigger say in the region.
However, if we wish to transform travel to transform lives then no better forum can be found to discuss how that lofty objective can indeed become a reality.
As for transforming lives, the river itself is at risk. There are hundreds of dams, either open, or in the construction phase that threaten the livelihoods of rural communities. Described as an economic and cultural lifeline the Mekong River is challenged by the demand for cheap energy. The negative impact on communities if more dams are built cannot be ignored by the travel industry.
We might suggest that dams have nothing to do with Mekong tourism, but the reality is that ultimately they will change the river and its communities. The region will lose its most valuable tourism asset. We have to join the debate on the future of the Mekong River and play a role in ensuring that one of the world’s mighty waterways it is not damaged or lost.
By transforming travel to focus on communities to transform lives requires the travel industry of the region to face the challenges that could destroy Mekong River life forever. Dams and industries that threaten the river’s sensitive environment will ultimately threaten tourism.
Mekong Tourism Forum’s organisers are hopeful that conference theme will get us thinking outside of the box to reach new conclusions on how tourism works with communities.
If we want to transform lives by transforming travel are we really ready to pay the price?
If we put culture, communities and environment first then we have adopt a very different business model that the one driving tourism in all Mekong Region countries today.
The Mekong Tourism Office should be the thought leader, bringing together those who have solutions. That’s why anyone who cares about Mekong River tourism should be there to join the debate in Nakhon Phanom. If there is no debate then start one.
More information can be found at www.MekongTourismForum.org.
Is active on various social media platforms under the universal handle @TourismMekong.
LinkedIn: Mekong Tourism discussion group