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Southeast Asia Evolves Its Unified Tourism Model


Chiang Mai is the economic engine of mountainous Northern Thailand, and a dandy place to hold meetings and events. This year’s ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) theme, Diversity Dazzles, was celebrated at the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre (CMIECC), one of the largest such venues in Southeast Asia. It boasts a usable space of 645,000 square feet where Chiang Mai and its Lanna history are well represented through the beautiful Thai-Lanna-style art and architecture within the premises. CMIECC is a 10-minute drive from the city and 15 minutes from Chiang Mai International Airport. There is no shortage of meeting spaces in Chiang Mai. Vietnam held its after party at Khum Khan, a palatial venue that embraces Thailand’s culture of service. The downtown Shangri-La’s Grand Lanna Ballroom, which also hosted several ATF events, is Chiang Mai’s largest at 16,300 square feet, accommodating 2,000 guests.

ATF 2018 media updates

ATF 2018 attracted 2,100 delegates from more than 40 countries, including 925 exhibitors (323 booths for 275 organizations), 245 international buyers and 55 international and local media. Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.


Vietnam announced that it was one of the world’s 10 fastest-growing travel markets in 2017, while working with a continued focus on security. Vietnam Airlines is now employing Southeast Asia’s first A321neo planes. The popular-yet-hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which has doubled in price.

Nhat Tan Bridge


The Amazing Thailand brand’s exotic culture of service is now embracing its Open to New Shades campaign that welcomes all. Thailand forecasts $60 billion in U.S. tourism spending in 2018. Along with being the region’s ASEAN highway connecting the region via marine, rail, air and road. Thailand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing health/wellness sectors.




China replaced Indonesia as their largest tourism market. Their new Passion Made Possible promo offers 24 tours from Vespa outings to foodie forays. The Singapore Grand Prix will continue being hosted until 2021. One of the country’s most ambitious projects is a high-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to Kunming, China. Tourists are flocking to their new offerings, including the National Gallery, Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum and Chinatown Street Market.



The Philippines welcomed 6.6 million tourists in 2017 (up from 5.36 million tourists in 2015). I’ve enjoyed Philippine Airlines direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila (via Vancouver). The Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious and Hollywood traditions. The U.S. remains its second-largest market, the first being South Korea—25 percent of tourists here are Korean.


Myanmar remains the land of (at least monthly) festivals. They are targeting 7 million tourist arrivals by 2020. It has identified tourism as one of its top-five priority sectors with an amazing growth rate. In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. The country is working to improve transit, road conditions and flight options. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (, $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.



Malaysia has direct airline connections to 80 destinations with Air Asia now being the top airline player in this region. Tourism partners created an ASEAN Adventure Travel Booklet for the youth/backpacker market. A highlight of their more than 50 annual festivals is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage.



Laos experienced a 10 percent drop in tourist arrivals in 2017. In 2018, it aims to attract more than 5 million tourists to generate $9 million. The “Jewel of the Mekong” recertified its country’s commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos has successfully evolved places like Vang Vieng from backpacker hangouts to more upscale destinations. 



Despite occasional setbacks, international tourist arrivals show virtually uninterrupted growth: 2.5 million (1950), 2.78 million (1980), 5.28 million (1995), 15.5 million (2017). Cruising Indonesia’s huge archipelagos is becoming more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, which is largely the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in Southeast Asia.



Cambodia's vision for 2020 is increasing international arrivals to 7.5 million (2017 welcomed 5.5 million visitors). Discussion continues on building a new road to Angkor Wat. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, which would weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. The “Kingdom of Wonder” now partners with Thailand for a single visa option.

Angkor Wat Cambodia


The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive or relax in a plush resort. While fewer than 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure and incentive travelers.


About ATF

Since its inauguration in 1981, the annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 590 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The tourism fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, to Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until recently, a difficult to access Myanmar.

In terms of tourism, Southeast Asia holds vast potential as one sustainable community. The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on this region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination.


Asean cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. A single-market, free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2020 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.

For more information visit ATF Thailand. ATF 2019 will be in Vietnam.

Where You Stay in Thailand Matters

A visit to Northern Thailand is an opportunity to enjoy a wide range of arts and daily expert massages that cost less a deli sandwich. You’ll enjoy Chiang Mai’s warm days and cool nights. This is where the local greeting—and yours—is cupping one’s hands in an ancient prayer symbol. You can witness Muay Thai kickboxing (the original ultimate fighting), trek in the mountains, take an intricate fruit-carving lesson or simply cruise the river at sunset admiring traditional Thai houses, spice gardens and lush greenery. But where you stay really matters. These destinations-in-themselves exemplify the Thai culture of politeness. From your lair, you only need to follow your ears or your nose. And, all of these upmarket hotels have dazzling meeting spaces.

Dhara Dhevi is a magical compound of wall-rimmed private home/suites amid archetypal temples and rice fields. Think palace-centered kingdom where you become insta-royalty. Geared towards the ultimate romantic getaway; rowdy party crews need not apply. Every elevated villa has an outdoor ground-floor pantry and leisure space—we’re not talking camp-style anything, as no facet of luxury is overlooked. Some villas have plunge pools, others private. Four-seater golf carts buzz about interconnecting the secluded 60-acre campus that’s outside the fray of buzzing Chiang Mai. If Angkor Wat had onsite posh lodgings, it would resemble this estate. Its plantations grow more than 1,500 spices. The property also boasts 12,000 antiques and artifacts.

Anantara Serviced Suites, 25 suites spread over seven stories, located across the road from their famed riverside resort (and my breakfast spot), was the hippest and homiest part of my Thailand foray. My swank pad right near the Anusarn (night) Market live-music scene had two bedrooms, a huge hangout area, full-sized kitchen and fridge and an Electrolux washer/dryer—a boutique residence with a pool on the roof, oh yeah! These suites are ideal for families of groups of friends traveling together. The Anantara Chiang Mais splendid colonial design is in honor of it being on site of the former British Consulate; they serve afternoon tea and a hundred other delights.

Shangri-La Chiang Mai is a charming urban resort: Note the grand piano in their grand lobby. A MICE favorite, the hotel has Chiang Mai’s largest ballroom and highest ceiling (28 feet). The Shangri-La brand—more than 100 hotels in 22 countries, including their newest in Colombo, Sri Lanka—means five-star reliability and safety. The hotel’s security standard makes a fair number of its 277 rooms home to guests connected to the U.S. Consulate. Their kid-friendly amenities rotate daily to keep the young ones engaged. A complete spa and wellness menu further ensures serenity. Pristine, carpeted rooms with big desks and even bigger views add to the homey feel. Exemplifying Chiang Mai’s rise as an international cuisine star is the hotel’s China Kitchen, the city’s first and only Szechuan-style restaurant (also Chiang Mai’s only chef’s table with a direct picture-window kitchen view). Bring on the braised green spinach with crab soup and some mapo (tofu) lobster.

Mercure Chiang Mai’s local atmosphere includes its convenient location right next door to an impressive supermarket (Thailand’s version of Whole Foods) and a Thai boxing venue. It’s also a short walk to the Old City’s North Gate (and the intimate North Gate Jazz Co-Op). Centrally positioned and affordable, the property can host meetings for up to 600 people—and they’ll all have a place to park. The airport is only 10 minutes away, but more important, the best of simpler Thailand awaits right outside your door.

U Nimman is a likable chic-boutique hotel on Nimman Road, where tastes of old meet new: gourmet coffee shops neighbor classic plastic-chair roadside noodle shops. Their world-class breakfast buffet won’t disappoint.

About the Author

Bruce Northam
Bruce Northam

Bruce Northam is the author of THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons. Check out his alternative keynote presentations on