When PATA asked
me to speak about media perceptions of the greater Mekong sub-region,
I thought, this is fantastic. I'll have an opportunity to present
my own perceptions of GMS tourism. Here's my chance to bombard
a captive audience - made up of many influential people involved
in Mekong tourism - with my opinions.
As soon as I began thinking more about the responsibilities
inherent in being invited to make such a presentation, however,
I realized that if I disguised my perceptions as those of 'The
Media' in general, it would be doing everyone here a disservice,
and would probably be completely transparent anyway!
I do have plenty of personal opinions on the topic, however,
based on my 20+ years association with the region. But I'll
try to identify those perspectives that are peculiarly mine
as opposed to those I may posit upon other members of the media.
First I'd like to start by sharing with you a little about my
own background as a writer involved with the Mekong region for
just over two decades. It's not such a long time really, but I
think enough change has occurred during my time here to illustrate
the way in which my own experiences and views may parallel those
of many of my less experienced colleagues in the media, including
newcomers arriving to write about the region for the first time.
I first came to the region not as a writer per se but as a
person with a strong desire to get to know the region on a personal
level. As an American who came of age during the height of the
Indochina War years, my first mental association with the word
Mekong was totally affixed to Vietnam. The nightly news we watched
on television then would rarely close without some mention of
the Mekong River or the Mekong River Delta, with reference to
the war of course. So for myself and for possibly millions of
others living outside of Asia at the time - I'm speaking of
the 1960s and early 1970s - the word 'Mekong' was nearly synonymous
with Vietnam and with the Indochina War.
To this day if you were to ask many people around the world
which country they most associate with the word Mekong, they
would answer 'Vietnam'.
It was the tumultuous war years, in fact, that drew my interest
to Asia and specifically to South-East Asia at a relatively
young age. At the time I left my parents' home in Washington
DC to attend university in 1970, my main academic interest was
to learn more about what was going behind the scenes we all
saw on television. My personal views about the war at that time
aren't really relevant now, but I can briefly encapsulate them
by confessing I was 100% against the military participation
of non-Asian powers in the conflict at that time.
As soon as I began digging 'behind the scenes' as it were
- as best I could as a college freshman with limited resources
and skills for tackling such an endeavor - I came to realize
that there was a vast world behind the word 'Mekong', a world
hitherto unknown to me, full of cultures and traditions and
religions with ancient roots, roots far older than anything
I had directly experienced in America or Europe. Mekong wasn't
just Vietnam for me any more; it was China, it was Laos, Cambodia,
Thailand and Myanmar. It was an entire region that shared a
river in common, everyday ways, as a source of food, transport,
recreation and even spiritual sustenance.
I immediately began making plans to bring myself over to the lands
of the Mekong, plans that didn't reach fruition until three years
after I'd finished university, in 1977, when I took a volunteer
position in Thailand as an English teacher.
Needless to say, that first year I spent in Thailand further
disrupted all my preconceptions about Asia and about the Mekong
River. Ever since that first introduction to the region, I've
been making an effort to see more of it and to better understand
the many cultures linked by geography and history to form the
area we're all focusing on these three days in Kunming.
Although I reached the banks of the Mekong several times in
1977, and even went for a swim once near Nong Khai then, the
lands across the river remained a experiential mystery for me
for some time to come. At that time neither Laos, nor Cambodia,
nor Vietnam nor China was open to tourism. Only in Thailand
could one directly experience the Mekong River; even in Myanmar,
which entertained some tourism then, visitors were not permitted
to go as far northeast as the Mekong.
All of this began changing just a few years later with the
opening of China to foreign tourists. I finally got up close
to the Chinese reach of the Mekong in 1983 when I visited Kunming
and Yunnan Province for the first time. It was very exciting.
One by one the other Mekong countries opened their borders to
tourism and I'll never forget the day I finally was permitted
to ford the Mekong by boat - my first nautical outing on this
almost magical river - when I crossed from Nong Khai to Vientiane
I finally got to the Myanmar side of the Mekong on a trip
to Kyaingtong or Kengtung in the early 1990s, and to Cambodia
around that same time. Ironically, Vietnam - the place I first
associated with the mighty Mekong and the first SE Asian country
to capture my imagination - I have yet to visit. It is a final
step on my Mekong journey that I look forward to with much anticipation
- a step that will bring me full circle in a way that visits
to Vietnam have meant a type of closure for many, many visitors
from all over the world.
So the Mekong first entered my imagination in conjunction
with a far-off land I still haven't seen, and the most of the
region associated with the river remained a source of mystery
for me for many, many years. I remember that when I first did
cross into Laos in 1989, I was keenly aware that I'd been waiting
to cross that river for 14 years. I have made that crossing
many times since, and I now make my home less than 200km from
the Mekong River in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I think that even though my association with the GMS may be
much closer than that of the general media worldwide, my longstanding
impressions may be shared with a large portion of that segment.
I think if you question journalists, travel writers, editors,
newscasters, photographers, and so on worldwide you'll find
that many of them look at the region in somewhat that same way
- as a place of mystery and as a place that has really only
recently become accessible to the world at large.
I would say that mystery and freshness remain two of the greatest
assets the region holds for the tourist market, and that travel
agents, GTOs, and the media should never pass up a chance to
capitalize on these assets as long as public perception contains
them. Even long after mass tourism is established in the region
- as is happening quickly - I predict the Mekong region will
maintain an aura of romance and exoticism that it shares with
such other great rivers of the world as the Mississippi, the
Nile, the Amazon, and so on.
Now to move onto some more specific images or impressions
held by the media. I asked a small but very high quality press
syndicate and publishing house headquartered in Chiang Mai to
supply me with five photographic transparencies for each of
the six Mekong nations. I asked them to choose photos they thought
best summarized the general stock of images they had on file.
I told them I would not offer them a single suggestion as to
what they should or should not include in the collection of
I'd like to show you these 30 slides now, and then try to make
a few conclusions afterwards as to what this choice of slides
I should explain that the name of the syndicate is CPA Media
(formerly Crescent Press Agency), and that they produce and
distribute a wide variety of articles and features concerned
primarily with travel and culture in the Greater Mekong Region.
These features have appeared in newspapers and magazines all
over the world. CPA Media also recently developed its own book
publishing operation called Teak House, which, like the articles
CPA has produced, focuses on culture and travel in the GMS.
Two book series under way include one on ethnography and another
on former royal cities in the region.
Let's look at the slides. I won't identify the slides because
I think our viewing of them will have more significance if we
don't identify them one by one other than saying which five
slides go with which of the six countries. Since we only have
30 slides to look at, this shouldn't take very long at all.
Looking back at what we've seen, I think there are a few conclusions
we can easily draw.
Number one, it's obvious to me that the photo editor at CPA
Media chose what he thought were the best shots photographically,
as opposed to making a serious effort to supply images which
were broadly representational of each country. I think this
says a lot about what the media, especially the travel media,
are looking for when it comes to covering the Mekong subregion.
Pretty pictures! It's no surprise to me at all that in the China
group, I think all five photos can be traced to the Chinese
province we're all the grateful guests of at the moment. This
underscores not just the scenic qualities of the part of China
most associated with the Mekong River, but also this particular
agency's editorial bias, since the agency is based in Thailand
and southern Yunnan may very well be an original homeland of
the Thais. Moving to the Myanmar group of images, we have shifted
from the scenic grandeur of southwestern China to some of the
greatest religious monuments in the region. For many in the
travel media as well as the general public, one of the first
things one thinks of when contemplating Myanmar is the wealth
of memorable art and architecture found in that country. Next
we saw five images taken in Laos. Again our eyes take in notable
historical sites, and for the first time we catch a glimpse
of the Mekong itself. In the same way that many years ago I
mistakenly associated the Mekong River solely with Vietnam,
I think many people today associate the Mekong with Laos, perhaps
because it is such an important transportation link in that
country and because the river runs through more of Laos than
it does through any other country besides China. Thailand's
representation brings in beaches for the first and only instance
in this collection of 30 photos. Thailand's current reputation
is undeniably associated with beaches and beach resorts in contemporary
world tourism, especially within the region. The elephant trekking
shot also reminds us that nature and ethnological tourism are
big in Thailand. And, as in Myanmar and Laos, we see impressive
Buddhist architecture. Cambodia - three out of five of the shots
show us the world-famous Angkor complex. As far as I can tell,
vis a vis world tourism's image of Cambodia, all five shots
could have been of Angkor, considering how fully Cambodia is
identified with this incredible World Heritage Site. One of
the five also gives us a glimpse of colonial architecture in
Phnom Penh. Undoubtedly this is an aspect of those countries
which were briefly ruled by the French or British empires that
has been and will remain an important draw for both media and
for incoming international tourists. Lastly we were taken into
the religious architecture of Vietnam, bringing together a common
thread we find in all six countries, that of a rich artistic
and spiritual heritage. And we saw a river, but in this case
not the Mekong but the Pearl River in Hue.
What might we conclude from the 30 images we've just seen,
other than they're a group of pretty pictures? It's obvious
that art and architecture, along with spiritual traditions,
are among the strongest lures for the media and an easy hook
on which they can hang their stories, whether visual or textual.
It shows that for this photographer at least, nature and natural
attractions assume an important role in China and Thailand.
All of us here know there is much of natural or environmental
interest in the other four countries, but perhaps this isn't
coming across to the travel media. Or perhaps it's just that
this photographer hasn't got round to all the natural attractions
of all six countries yet, but even if that's the case there
has to be a reason for it. That reason might be found in the
priorities journalists draw up for themselves given limited
time in each country. These priorities can of course be affected
if not manipulated by the kind of information and publicity
disseminated by travel agents, travel suppliers and GTOs in
every nation concerned.
Only three of the 30 photos had people as their central subject.
This could mean that this particular photographer is lousy with
people photography. I'm a photographer myself, and in my case
that's certainly true as it takes a certain type of shooter
to take good people photos. But we might also tentatively suggest
that for many in the media and in the world tourism market,
the peoples and cultures of the GMS are not sufficiently promoted.
Yet we know from surveys taken among visitors at the end of
their trips to GMS countries, that the people of the region
make a very vivid and positive impression on most of them.
I think I've used this device enough at this point. Obviously
there are only very limited conclusions once can draw from a
more or less random grab-bag of photos like this.
QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
A few other issues with regard to media perception of the Mekong
region that PATA has asked me to touch upon include the following:
1) What does the media see as the future in GMS tourism growth
The answer to this one is simple: Myself and my colleagues
see the growth potential as tremendous. As everyone knows from
reading tourism trade publications, tourist visitation to Asia
in general has been growing at a tremendous rate over the last
two decades or so. The reasons the GMS has been growing at a
rather slower rate overall - with certain micro exceptions within
some GMS nations - are obvious to anyone who takes a little
time to explore the history of tourism in the region. Media
representatives who have actually traveled in these countries
have reported in some detail about the central issue of accessibility.
The accessibility issue can be divided into two main areas of
concern: First the availability and suitability of transport
and hospitality infrastructures, and second, the structure of
legal mechanisms such as visas, travel permits, border crossings
and so on.
As all of us here today know, these issues are being addressed
and much progress has been made in each and every area. From
my own personal perspective, I see no reason to rush the development
of accessibility issues, and I know there are many in the industry
who endorse the slow growth option. As we can see from the study
of tourism in many areas of the world where infrastructure is
fully developed and legal issues fully relaxed, too much accessibility
can be as much a problem - perhaps more of a problem - than
too little. Although some writers in the past have complained
about lack of accessibility, I think that nowadays most in the
media would agree that 'slow and easy' will win the race. Tourism
is such a complex phenomenon, both socially and economically,
that it behooves all of us to look closely at potential long-term
results, negative as well as positive.
2. Another question that PATA asked me to address was What
one can and should be done from a communications standpoint
following the series of crisis situations that have hit the
In terms of the economic crisis much of the region is undergoing
right now, which to a significant degree has been tied to currency
devaluations, we need to get the word out that it's less expensive
to travel here now than it was two years ago, that travel in
the GMS is a pretty good bargain right now. Thailand has done
this exceedingly well. From my home in Chiang Mai I've watched
as following the baht crash in June 1997 it took about six months
for the word to get around. Then we all saw a tremendous surge
in tourist arrival, which looks like it will peak this season
with the highest international tourist visitation Thailand has
ever experienced. The Tourist Authority of Thailand minced no
words in its press releases earlier this year, many of which
basically announced "Thailand On Sale." This increase in tourism
will be one of the factors that will assist Thailand in quickening
national economic recovery, and the whole region could benefit
from similar increases in visitation.
3. Finally I was asked to provide suggestions on how to maximize
media coverage in the GMS countries. I'll keep my comments short
and simple here, since this is a self-serving topic which I,
as a member of the travel media, could probably address for
the next hour.
My suggestions are:
A) Increase the number of press releases or presentations
you now have by at least 200%. More importantly, improve the
quality of these releases. I don't mean better paper, or more
color photos. I mean provide enough detail about each and every
attraction your country or travel product offers to the point
that a good writer can generate near-complete articles or guidebook
text out of them. Though personal experience of all the attractions
may be the ideal, the reality is that writers and editors have
limited time and limited budgets within which to try and cover
a destination thoroughly. You can help by making their job easier.
A small privately published tourist magazine I picked up in
Myanmar recently, entitled Myanmar Travel Handbook, was a wonderful
discovery for me since it contained complete schedules for virtually
all public inter-city air, road and river transport in the country.
It's nothing fancy, but it's full of information I can use immediately.
Since I am just this week working on some material about travel
in Myanmar, this magazine has been of immense help.
The Tourist Authority of Thailand has also done and excellent
job of providing detailed and lengthy press releases on everything
from local festivals to in-depth outlines of Thai cuisine.
Disseminate this material regularly among professional media
- either to the editors of travel publications or to the membership
of such professional organizations as the Society of American
Travel Writers or its equivalent in other countries.
B) Next I would suggest establishing a special office within
your organization - even if it's only one person - dedicated
to assisting travel media. Such assistance should include everything
from answering questions about tourist attractions or infrastructure
to helping media members with designing good research itineraries.
This requires educated and dedicated staff - not so easy to
find sometimes I realize.
C) Lastly take an inventory of all your publications and your
staff each year and make it a priority to make whatever improvements
you can afford for the coming year. It's not very inspiring
to receive the same press releases two years in a row, with
nothing but the date at the top changed.
Of course it goes without saying that issues such as the quality
of tourism products and accessibility issues themselves must
show improvement year to year.
My last piece of advice is: Don't focus just on high-end markets.
As has become increasingly clear to everyone in serious tourism
studies, and as was covered nicely in PATA's own October 1998
copy of Issues & Trends in Pacific Asia Travel, the low-budget,
long-stay tourist - sometimes called the "youth travel market"
although there are plenty of participants in this type of travel
whose ages run to their 50s, 60s and even 70s - probably offers
the most overall benefit to the typical host country of all
other segments in the tourist market with regard to at least
two key factors: net revenue per visitor and low impact on local
cultures and the environment. Although the low-budget, long-stay
segment perhaps only amounts to around 20% of the total client
base, it's financial effect may be much greater than any other.
Very little of the materials I see produced by private or public
sector travel suppliers in the GMS countries seem to address
this market very well.