Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are slowly but surely finding their place in the sun, writes Michael Taylor.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has 10 member states, but fully half of these nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam – have long been languishing in the shadows of the other five. This is true economically and politically as well as in terms of tourism.

As the region’s tourism powerhouse, Thailand recorded 29,923,000 international arrivals in 2015, according to the World Bank. Malaysia was not far behind, with 25,721,000 arrivals, followed by Singapore with 12,051,000) and Indonesia with 10,407,000. The feather in Indonesia’s cap, of course, is Bali, which accounts for a disproportionately large share of the country’s foreign tourists.

Interestingly, Vietnam actually out-performed the Philippines in 2015, with 7,944,000 international arrivals against 5,361,000 for the Philippines. Cambodia had 4,775,000, Myanmar 4,681,000, and Laos 3,543,000. Brunei welcomed a paltry 218,000 foreign visitors that year.

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sport & Tourism, the number of international visitors has continued to grow, reaching 10 million in 2016, for a 25.7 per cent year-on-year increase over 2015.

“That momentum has continued into 2017 – a record 3.2 million foreign arrivals were reported in the first quarter, a 29 per cent increase from the same period in 2016,” says Amy Do, Head of Business Development at Hoiana, an integrated tourism destination project that will include premium hotel and resort facilities. The project will be launched in three phases, with the first phase scheduled to be launched by 2019.

“Bali and Thailand are great destinations and have been popular for some time, but tourists are increasingly looking for something different, and Vietnam is finally getting its share of visitors …”

The Thai-based Onyx Hospitality Group is scheduled to enter the Vietnamese market with a 364-room property along the country’s spectacular central coast in 2018.

“Ozo Hoi An marks our first step into Vietnam, where are keen to have a stronger presence for our range of brands,” says Douglas Martell, CEO, Onyx Hospitality Group. “In addition, Amari will continue its expansion into Laos with Amari Vang Vieng, which will feature 160 rooms, Amari’s signature Amaya Food Gallery, Breeze Spa and creative meeting venues.”

Martell believes both Vietnam and Laos have considerable tourism potential.

“As part of our on-going journey to become the best mid-sized hospitality company in Asia, the regional expansion plan for these two markets represents a great opportunity,” Martell says. “We continue to see the rise of tourism and the growth of the economies in Laos and Vietnam. So, we will look at opportunities to increase our presence in these countries.”

Cambodia

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Cambodia’s tourism industry grew by 14.2 per cent during the first quarter of 2017 compared to the same period the year before, with China, Russia, Vietnam, the United States, France, and Britain accounting for the lion’s share of visitors to the country.

“Chinese tourists led the pack among foreign tourist arrivals during the first half of 2016 with a 14.3 per cent year-on-year increase, followed by modest rises in the number of Russian and Vietnamese tourists,” says Indra Mani, general manager at Shinta Mani Hotels, which currently operates two properties in the country.

“Most of the upmarket or international brand hotels are focusing Cambodia as a must visit destination, not only for its amazing temples of Angkor, but also due to the unique tradition of Khmer people as well as other creative place to visit like galleries, workshops and many other.”

Myanmar

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar had long been something of an international tourism pariah because of its repressive military dictatorship, which held power from 1962 to 2010. As late as 2006, fewer than 270,000 foreign tourists visited the country.

When the political climate started to improve in the early 2010s, however, foreign countries started lifting economic sanctions, and a sharp rise in inbound tourism followed. Myanmar has proved immensely popular with foreign tourists in recent years.

“Myanmar’s economy is expected to continue to grow and in tandem with it, the country’s tourist arrivals,” says Chu Chee Seng, General Manager of Keppel Land Hospitality Management, which operates the 797-room Sedona Hotel Yangon, a Preferred Hotels & Resorts property, which is situated in the nation’s capital, formerly known as Rangoon.

In addition to its popularity as a leisure travel destination, Myanmar also has much to offer business travellers – especially as new routes are launched to other cities in the region.

“Yangon, in particular, is set to be an upcoming MICE destination with increased airlift across the region,” says Chu. “Sedona Hotel Yangon’s main ballroom was recently refurbished to cater to such growing needs – with over 1,600 square metres of meeting space, the hotel is suited for both small meetings and large conventions.”