Mekong Tourism Forum innovates by integrating rural villages as conference venues and stimulating dialogue

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The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office has become known for innovative ways of organizing conferences in sustainable, inclusive, and environmentally friendly ways. During the 2017 Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF) in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR, topical mini-seminars matched with non-conventional venues across town, such as restaurants, river cruise boats, botanical gardens and rice fields, as well as museums and golf courses, making the event highly inclusive and experiential.

The 2018 MTF stepped toward inclusivity yet again by conducting its thematic strategy sessions in eight different rural villages with an aim to include local residents in discussions.

The innovative idea came as part of this year’s ambitious theme titled ‘Transforming Travel – Transforming Lives’ and was conceived by 2018 MTF organisers, which included the Thailand Ministry of Tourism & Sports, the Nakhon Phanom Provincial Government, and the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO).

Jens Thraenhart, Executive Director of the MTCO, said this initiative was put forth to compliment the higher mission of encouraging a sustainable, inclusive and environmentally-friendly planning platform. This initiative is also aligned with the ‘Greater Mekong Subregion Tourism Sector Strategy 2016-2025’, a ten-year strategy framework created and published by the MTCO in conjunction with each member county’s ministry of tourism with support from the Asian Development Bank.

“We believe that tourism can be an important catalyst in changing people’s lives for the better through mutual understanding,” said Thraenhart. “Organising workshops in ethnic villages surrounding the city of Nakhon Phanom was an idea focused on bringing delegates to areas where tradition still shapes people’s daily life.”

Host villages were Tai Ka Lerng, Tai Nyaw, Tai So, Phu Tai, Tai Guan, Tai Kha, Tai Seak, and Tai Isan respectively. Each village – located on Thailand’s side of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province – hosted different strategic planning workshops with specific themes including organic tourism, gastronomy tourism, adventure tourism, religious tourism, festival tourism, wellness tourism, eco tourism, and heritage tourism. Workshops were led by subject matter experts to offer relevant knowledge to engage in discussion with MTF delegates and village residents.

“Nakhon Phanom fitted particularly into a cultural ethnic experience,” said H.E. Itthiphol Kunplom, Vice Minister of Tourism & Sports of Thailand.

“The city is at the crossroads of many cultures and thus became a place for settlements, traders and migrants over the centuries. The province is home to a dozen ethnic groups including Laotian and Vietnamese people,” said the Vice Minister.

“It was so refreshing to see the efforts the villagers made to engage with the theme of transforming travel,” said Jeremy Smith, one of several keynote speakers for this year’s MTF.

Through conducting years of research for his book ‘Transforming Travel – realising the potential of sustainable tourism’, Smith has collected a wealth of knowledge about how to optimise tourism opportunities in the twenty-first century.

“The way the village sessions immersed us in the communities really epitomises the impactful approach that’s needed to help shape and transform tourism in the future,” he said.

MTF delegates of each workshop were greeted with traditional food and welcoming ceremonies from village residents. This experience was meant to inspire creative tourism ideas that highlight and respect the rich culture of these rural villages.

Encouraged by the success of the idea, Thraenhart said: “We started breaking down barriers to create a truly immersive experience. Having villagers as part of the discussion in addition to being the true hosts provided a shared respect and understanding.”

For most villagers, it was the first time they had interacted with international guests. Each host village received support and coaching to prepare for their respective workshop by the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association (TEATA), which in Thailand helps two dozen local villages to develop sustainable tourism solutions.

“This event was truly what I was expecting from a village experience,” said Nathalie Gütermann, Editor in Chief of the German-language magazine ‘Thai Zeit’. “The people’s welcome was so intense and spontaneous. They were so happy to welcome us and I personally felt very moved by their eager sense of hospitality.”

“Being Khmer, my experience at the organic tourism seminar was extremely enlightening,” said Chanrasmey Koam, Video Production Manager for Cambodian news outlet the Phnom Penh Post. “Our facilitator was so passionate and gave a sense of inspiration for local farmers to shift towards organic practices. His expertise and skill to engage with session participants inspired me to learn more and push organic tourism in my own country,” Koam concluded.

The next Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF 2019) will take place in Dali, in Yunnan Province in PR China. Dali is famous for its beautiful mountainous landscapes along Erhai Lake as well as its old town dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

For more information about the Mekong Tourism Forum, please visit www.mekongtourismforum.org