Interview: Mario Hardy

How can new and “off the beaten track” destinations in ASEAN countries be further promoted?

MARIO HARDY: One of the primary topics that PATA is addressing is the disproportional growth of tourism. We have been advocating for the dispersal of tourists or a better distribution of tourists in the region, if you will. In certain destinations, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, there are far too many tourists, and if you drive 10 km away, there are beautiful temples and very few tourists. Unfortunately, this results in an unequal distribution of tourists within the country, leaving remote provinces and villages in poverty because they do not get their fair share of tourism activities. If there was a better distribution, it would give them an opportunity to improve their quality of life. Another example is Indonesia. While the country has more than 13,000 islands, it has come to the point where most Americans believe that Bali is an actual country. Furthermore, within Bali itself, visitors will often remain concentrated in a particular area, when the island as a whole has many more tremendous opportunities to offer the traveller.

In Thailand, the distribution of tourists is probably a little better, but again, there is a high concentration of them in places like Bangkok, Ko Samui and Krabi. The Ministry of Tourism, however, has rapidly recognised this issue, and in 2015 they decided to promote 12 destinations that are not the norm. Since the promotion of these places, we have actually witnessed an increase in tourism activities. Other countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, which are composed of thousands and thousands of islands, face the challenge of air connectivity and developing traffic between many different locations.

How much potential do you think there is for the implementation of a single ASEAN visa?

HARDY: Unfortunately, I do not think that it is going to happen overnight. The debate over the single ASEAN visa has been going on for over 10 years already. If those countries were able to have a single ASEAN visa, it would encourage long-distance travellers to travel beyond one point and visit multiple countries. Some people are already doing that, but it is not the majority. Indeed, facilitating visas and harmonising procedures within ASEAN countries should be a key focus of ASEAN’s economic agenda.

What can be done to strengthen human resources in local tourism sectors in ASEAN countries?

HARDY: Human capital and resources is going to be the real challenge for the tourism industry moving forward. If one looks at the growth rate of the tourism industry across the region, most countries are experiencing double-digit growth, and this is set to continue over the short and medium terms. Now, if we look at the current job vacancies or the jobs that will be created over the next decade to meet demand, which is increasing over time, there are simply not enough people graduating from schools and universities with a degree that is linked to the tourism and hospitality management industry.

The Philippines exports a tremendous amount of talent. About 250,000 young people are studying hospitality management and tourism every year, and those talents get exported to other countries in the region and beyond. However, if you look at countries like Thailand or Singapore it is the opposite. They have a qualified workforce shortage in the tourism industry and fail to fill all vacancies.

Countries like Cambodia and Thailand are preparing to open new schools that focus on delivering tourism degrees. However, the question of how these countries can retain those talents remains. Once the students are trained, how do you stop them from going to Myanmar or other countries to earn more money? How do you stop people moving from one country to another so that they can increase their income?