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The Greater Mekong Sub-Region Tourism Strategy

The Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMSR) consists of five ASEAN members –Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma – together with a portion of southern China, usually centring on Yunnan province. The region is united by geography, history and, to some extent, politics. For thousands of years, migrants have been travelling along the narrow river valleys that pass through the GMSR from north to south, searching for fertile land which they can call their own. The great river valleys include that of the River Mekong, on which 50 million people rely in its downstream reaches for protein or for income. What happens at one point of the river affects all of those other people who also share the river and its resources. The spread of both Communism and capitalism have been enormously facilitated by the numerous network connections between overseas Chinese and their local connections.

In the twenty first century, a new way in which it is possible for the people and governments of the GMSR to work together is through tourism. Tourism is one of the biggest and most important industries in the world and offers great opportunities for Southeast Asia because of the exotic culture, cuisine and landscapes. Yet it has to date proven difficult to promote co-operation between states because of mutual suspicions and antagonism.

It is more common for the officials of one country to point out the supposed wrongdoings of one of its neighbours than it has been to highlight similarities. There are also problems with low levels of infrastructure and development and the prevalence and growth of sex work and drug trafficking which are associated with many tourist developments and which give them a bad reputation. So what can be done to overcome these problems? The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been taking some steps to promote confidence between partners and to improve areas of infrastructure and co-operation, more or less one project at a time. This strategy has been reasonably successful but has yet to provide large-scale and spectacular breakthroughs in the region – many would argue that it is the role of the private sector to lead this process in any case.

The ADB designated tourism as its 11th flagship program and has devoted a number of resources to bringing about an agreed strategy and progress towards achieving an implementation strategy. This took the form of a strategy projected to last from 2006-15. In addition to a number of secondary outputs, the plan was intended to promote tourism in terms of numbers of tourists and tourist expenditure while also making contributions towards poverty reduction.

A subsequent request was made to include Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the GMSR strategy. The Zhuang people, of whom there are approximately three million, are ethnically related to the Tai group of peoples of which Thais, Laos and Shans, among others, are members. Guangxi is not the poorest part of China but it is quite remote from the money-making centres of the Eastern coast and, consequently, there is a danger that the Zhuang people will suffer from the negative effects of increasing income inequality. Tourism, albeit a form of tourism which is likely to identify the Zhuang people almost entirely with their ‘quaint’ and ‘exotic’ ethnicity, which is likely to have a number of social costs. Still, in a globalizing world, income is still income however it is achieved – or, at least, so goes one argument.

The ADB’s initial effort was self-rated as highly successful and the following outcomes were included: “… successfully assisted … in preparing a comprehensive and relevant strategy to develop subregional tourism through promoting the subregion as a single destination, developing human resources, promoting the conservation of the cultural heritage, minimizing potential negative social impacts from tourism, improving distribution of tourism benefits across countries and regions, increasing the role of the private sector, facilitating the movement of tourists, and identifying priority multi-country geographical areas within the GMS for tourism development” (ADB Technical Assistance Completion Report TA 6179-REG).

The next was to prepare specific thematic projects which would boost cross-border tourism development while, so it was hoped in any case, recognizing the need for environmentally-sustainable and community-participative development.

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