Analysis Asia Pacific Updates

ATF 2020 attendance falls flat

Meager turnout in Brunei linked to controversial ‘hududlaws.

This year’s ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam may be one of the smallest in recent times, but it was not short on opportunities to interact — due to the smaller turnout — and also notable for the host nation’s efforts and hospitality.

ATF 2020 comprised several government and association/private-sector meetings at the Empire Brunei from 12 to 16 January, and trade-only exhibition (TRAVEX) at BRIDEX International Conference Centre from 14 to 16 January.

While total pre-registration stood at 838, the final number of attendees looked considerably smaller. About two-thirds of buyers were from Asia and 29 per cent Europe, especially Eastern Europe and Russia, covering leisure, luxury travel and MICE. Profiles were more diverse; no longer predominantly wholesalers planning series tours.

There were 263 registered exhibitor delegates from across the 10 ASEAN countries, with 150 booths. However, the set-up didn’t fill the 5,200-sqm hall, and a few national pavilions were barely the size of corporate stands, with only four to seven exhibiting companies.

Several delegates suggested that attendance was weak due to Brunei’s hudud (Muslim) laws introduced last year and a ban on sale and serving of liquor, leading ‘regulars’ to stay away. However, Bruneian DMCs said they had not been seriously affected because Brunei offers adventure and ecotourism.

Anthony Chieng, managing director of Sunshine Borneo Tours, said: “Some markets reacted negatively initially but business is coming back. Tour operators inform visitors in advance that they may bring alcoholic drinks for private consumption. The challenge lies in international events which require inclusivity and non-discrimination.”

New buyer Dr Aaron Tham, lecturer at University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, was pleasantly surprised at exhibitors’ interest. “We run one big and several small tourism-related academic conferences a year in various locations, attended by 75 to 250 delegates. I had 22 appointments. Sellers said they want to tap new and niche areas.”

Indeed, tourism ministers endorsed the trend to move from mass tourism into areas such as festivals and cruise travel. Recurring themes in NTO media presentations were culture, gastronomy and ecotourism.

Innovations at TRAVEX included a novel ‘speed dating’ session to facilitate meetings between buyers and sellers and Singapore Tourism Board sponsoring a buyers’ lounge instead of standard pavilion. It presented two panel discussions: Muslim travel trends and positioning Singapore as a Muslim-friendly travel destination.

With the theme ‘ASEAN – Together Towards a Next Generation of Travel’, digitisation of information and services was emphasised. The new Visit SE Asia website aims to be “a one-stop platform for integrated information for the public on ASEAN tourism products and activities”.

TRAVEX has been criticised for lacking consistency and continuity due to rotational hosting by member countries, each with different tourism products and priorities. This will change in 2022, when private sector-led ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA) assumes responsibility for the event. It has received in-principle approval, to be formalised later this year.

“We aim to improve the standard of the tourism industry in ASEAN countries. By having ASEANTA take the lead to organise TRAVEX, which has been showing more successful results, product categories such as business events/MICE can be included. This will benefit the promotion of ASEAN destinations as a whole,” said Mingkwan Metmowlee, ASEANTA president. 

Cambodia will host the next ATF, from 17 to 23 January 2021 in Phnom Penh. The venue, Chroy Changvar International Exhibition Hall, is currently under construction.