China Travel Trends Talks to Mason Florence, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Office
China Travel Trends recently spoke with Mason Florence, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office. American-born Florence, who has two decades of experience in Asian travel, journalism, marketing and management, has been in his present position for five years. During his tenure, he’s been tireless in his quest to raise the awareness of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which includes the Chinese province of Yunnan and the Autonomous Region of Guangxi and five ASEAN nations: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. While China is not a member of ASEAN, it borders many ASEAN nations and close economic and social relations between ASEAN and China are vital to regional security and prosperity. Florence has observed that the Mekong River and the entire GMS plays an absolutely vital role in bringing China and ASEAN closer, going as far as to say that, “The Mekong really acts as a bridge between China and ASEAN. It’s the glue that holds it together.”
CTT: Can you give me some background on the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office?
MF: In 1992, the Asian Development Bank instigated what is known as the GMS Cooperation Framework, at that time there was ASEAN, but they actually coined a new phrase, the Greater Mekong Subregion. The mandate of our organization is twofold: to promote the six-nation area as a single destination, and the other side is development, to help develop tourism infrastructure.
CTT: Is there much interest among Chinese travelers in the GMS?
MF: There are over 50 million people coming into the Mekong Region ever year and there has been tremendous growth of people coming from China. And there are a lot of people coming overland now from China into the Mekong region, and flying in as well. We held our Mekong Tourism Forum in 2013 in China’s beautiful Guilin. Normally, because it’s a six-country event, we need a multi-country theme, but because China hit the 80 million mark in outbound tourists last year, surpassing Germany in outbound tourism, when we discussed the 2013 forum’s theme with all the stakeholders, we were unanimous in deciding to make the theme “the rise of the Chinese traveler.” We looked at Chinese travelers coming into the other five countries of the GMS, but we also looked at Chinese domestic travelers coming into Yunnan and Guangxi. Yunnan Province has around 120 million inbound domestic tourists in Yunnan Province. It is staggering.
CTT: Do you see any changes in how Chinese are traveling these days?
MF: The thing with the Chinese is similar to what happened with the Japanese: Many people have this image of Japanese traveling in big groups, with cameras, following guides with flags and so on. But that mostly ended decades ago and now you can find tons of independent Japanese travelers all over the place. It’s happening much faster with the Chinese. The new generation of Chinese, the Millennials, whatever you call them, maybe the first trip they take is with a tour group, but trust me, the second trip they take is with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a couple of friends. They’re backpacking, driving themselves. I think that once you get the taste for travel, you will want to come back FIT, and it isn’t that difficult. And our region’s safe – I mean, there’s the odd scam – but overall it’s a stunning, exciting, fascinating and very safe place to travel.
CTT: How does the GMS and the Mekong in particular bring Chinese travelers into Thailand?
MF: Sure. Chinese are out exploring everything now. I think it used to be flying to Bangkok and then it was going to secondary emerging destinations like Chiang Mai, which were new for them, and now it’s hopping in a car and going off into the hinterlands. Taking buses or just doing it on their own. And, of course, the movie, “Lost in Thailand,” did wonders for bringing Chinese to Thailand. That film alone drove masses of Chinese into Thailand.
CTT: What would you recommend to a Chinese traveler who wants to explore the GMS and Thailand?
MF: For any Chinese person, I’d recommend starting in Yunnan and exploring southern Yunnan, then crossing into Laos, and then crossing into Thailand. In Laos, you can go right through Luang Namtha can make a beeline to the Thai border and get to Chiang Rai, or you can go down to Luang Prabang and take the boat upriver and then come into Thailand.
CTT: In your opinion, just how important is the GMS for this part of Asia?
MF: In some ways, China is like its own world. It acts as its own entity. It really stands on its own. But, in the south of Yunnan Province, for example, the landscape, culture and people are very similar to Thailand. It is completely like “the other China.” If you go there and look around, you might think you were in Chiang Mai or Sukhothai. So, the GMS really brings China into ASEAN. It creates serious and meaningful links between China and ASEAN. It really connects China to the northern five countries of ASEAN. Those two provinces create important trade and cultural links with ASEAN. You can look at China’s Mekong not just as a river, but as a bridge to ASEAN.
By Chris Rowthorn, China Travel Trends South East Correspondent