home Archives Perceptions of the Mekong Sub-Region: Understanding and Working with Media

Perceptions of the Mekong Sub-Region: Understanding and Working with Media

Photo: William Cho

From the archives (1999)

by Joe Cummings

The following text is based on a presentation made at a regional travel conference a few years ago. Joe Cummings is a public speaker and the author of several popular guidebooks and travel books.

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.

Personal Background
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.

Mekong Nations
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 in 1989.

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 30 slides.

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 signifies.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 and development?

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 GMS countries?

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.

About the authorJoe Cummings has been writing about culture, politics and travel since his first job for The Asia Record in 1979. Since then he has written over 35 original guidebooks, pictorials, phrasebooks and atlases for countries in Asia and North America, including a guidebook to Thailand which has sold over a million copies. As a freelance journalist he has written for dozens of periodicals.


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