Destination Mekong Summit 2023: Shaping The Future Of Sustainable Tourism

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The Destination Mekong Summit 2023 (DMS23) was held from December 6-7 in a hybrid online and offline format at the OCIC Sales Centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The summit brought together various stakeholders under the theme “Mekong in Motion, Mekong Emotion(s)”, focusing on sustainable tourism in the Mekong region. We delve into some of the summit’s main highlights.

Organised by Destination Mekong (DM), a private regional tourism organisation, the summit aimed to foster collaboration, provide a platform to exchange ideas and devise strategies to propel the tourism industry forward responsibly and harmoniously. The summit’s agenda featured enlightening keynote presentations, interactive workshops and a dynamic array of plenary panel sessions.

Watch B2B Cambodia’s highlight video on the Destination Mekong Summit:

“Destination Mekong is really a platform for the private sector to engage and promote the region in a sustainable manner, so while, MTCO, the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, is the public sector arm, Destination Mekong is the sister, private sector arm, to really make sure that we have a public-private partnership framework,” said Dr Jens Thraenhart, Founding Partner of UNWTO Affiliate Member Chameleon Strategies and Founder of DM, during his opening speech.

“This is all about connection,” added Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of DM. “This summit is connecting the travellers with the travel operators, we are connecting the supply with the demand, we are connecting all of you together, and this is really how we want to create value through collaboration and innovation.” 

How Conscious Capitalism Can Drive Sustainable Tourism 

Dr. h.c. Azeeza Jalaludeen speaking at the Destination Mekong Summit 2023
Dr. h.c. Azeeza Jalaludeen speaking at the Destination Mekong Summit 2023.

The first keynote presentation of the summit was delivered by Dr. h.c. Azeeza Jalaludeen, the Founder of GOGLOBAL Accelerator in Singapore on the ‘Conscious Capitalism Framework’. She described this framework as a transformative approach for the tourism industry that is grounded in the principles of conscious living, leadership, and profits, which collectively define conscious capitalism.

She gave the example of Natura &Co, which includes cosmetics brands such as The Body Shop and Avon Products, as a corporate group that is driven by these ‘conscious’ principles and prioritises ethical practices and humane values.

“If we are passionate about [developing] the country, we will find ways and means to get into conscious profits, and this is not just about an ethical way of doing business, it’s about how we can add value to humanity,” said Dr. Jalaludeen.

She challenged the audience to embrace a new reality, emphasising the importance of evolving beyond traditional practices to a greener, sustainable, and conscious form of tourism that helps to integrate ethical business practices with profitability, and aims to make sustainability irresistible and accessible.

The Future Of Travel In The Mekong Region: What To Watch In 2024

Future of Mekong Tourism panel at the Destination Mekong Summit 2023
Panellists discuss “The Future of Travel in the Mekong Region” on Day 1 of the Destination Mekong Summit 2023.

A panel discussion on “The Future of Travel in the Mekong Region” moderated by journalist Marissa Carruthers provided an informative discussion and deliberation of emerging travel trends for 2024 and beyond between four experts from the tourism sector. 

The panel noted that there has been a significant shift in transportation choices, with travellers increasingly opting for land-based travel like buses and trains over regional flights. Guido Neil, the Director Special Operations of 12Go in Thailand, stated that this trend is partly driven by a growing emphasis on sustainability in travel.

Marcel Van der Zwaag, General Manager of EXO Travel in Cambodia, supported this view, and touched on how infrastructure developments like new train lines and highways in countries like Laos and Cambodia are opening up new opportunities for tourism and benefiting local communities. 

“It just opens up so much opportunity for the local communities to start and build to try and gain something to create experiences that are truly authentic,” said Van der Zwaag, commenting on the post-COVID context. 

On the other hand, Hannah Pearson, Founder of Pear Anderson, brought forward a more cautionary perspective on the recovery of the tourism sector, suggesting that it has been quite uneven across different regions. 

“There’s certain areas that are seeing recovery and certain not… It’s quite an uneven recovery,” said Pearson. Van der Zwaag added that in Cambodia, the discrepancy in tourism recovery is particularly evident in the number of ticket sales for Angkor Wat still being significantly down.

In terms of future trends and sustainable travel, the panellists agreed on the importance of innovation and creativity in destination marketing, with an emphasis on authentic experiences. Nikolas Hatz, the Tourism Development Expert at GIZ ICONE, particularly highlighted the need for education and training in sustainable tourism practices, not just for providers but also for tourists. 

“We need to be brave enough to say no to a customer if the customer is requesting for unsustainable, unconscious or irresponsible tours,” said Hatz. “We need to be brave enough to understand the sustainability needs of our destination and help the customer move within that framework… we need to be brave enough to say, no, this is not a tour we offer.” 

Food, Farm And Agri-Tourism

Panellists from the ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change through Food, Farm and Agri-Tourism’ panel at the Destination Mekong Summit 2023 pose for photo - including Anthony Galliano
‘Sowing the Seeds of Change through Food, Farm and Agri-Tourism’ panel on Day 2 of the Destination Mekong Summit 2023.

The second day of the summit opened with an insightful panel discussion on ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change through Food, Farm and Agri-Tourism’, bringing together experts from the food and beverage (F&B), agricultural and digital marketing industries to share insights on enhancing sustainable tourism through innovative practices.

Clemy Balasoto, CEO and Owner of Phoenix Lab Asia, emphasised the role of digital marketing in promoting local Cambodian cuisine, highlighting its impact on customer engagement and culinary visibility. 

“Digital marketing… offers a virtual table to showcase culinary artistry wherein social media platforms can amplify unique flavours and foster community engagement,” said Balasoto.

Anthony Galliano, Treasurer of the Cambodia Restaurant Association (CRA), discussed the CRA’s role in improving the industry through education, advocacy, and fostering community, adding that the association’s “mission is really to improve and bring innovation through sustainability and ethical means to the Cambodian restaurant, food and beverage industry”.

Benjamin Garel, Head of Department of Azaylla Cambodia, highlighted the need for simple and sustainable practices like waste management and education for farmers, while Joshua Jones, Managing Director of Three Corner Coffee, shared his experience of improving the quality of Cambodian coffee and changing perceptions of local products, both underscoring the necessity of environmentally-friendly practices in agriculture and food production.

Sophearith Yorn, Founder and Manager Director of BizKhmer Digital Media, spoke about initiating an ecotourism project that concentrates on sustainable community development and agriculture, and stressed the importance of collaboration in boosting regional tourism growth. 

All panellists collectively emphasised the significance of innovation, collaboration, and sustainability in the culinary and tourism sectors, stressing their potential to drive positive change and foster more sustainable tourism practices.

Sustainable Tourism As A Force For Good In The Mekong Region

Speaking with B2B Cambodia, Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of DM, reflected on the summit’s main mission to support the private sector in order to help bolster the Mekong region as a prime destination for sustainable tourism.

Watch B2B Cambodia’s interview with Catherine Germier-Hamel, CEO of Destination Mekong:

“We want to support the private sector, to get access to market investment, new skills, new tools and knowledge to be able to be outstanding and to really create value and impact in the region,” said Germier-Hamel. “The idea is to really create a collaborative and innovative framework so that we can really brand the Mekong region as a standalone destination for investment and for tourism.”

Germier-Hamel noted that the summit, now in its fourth edition, has evolved into a movement that engages stakeholders to work together, fostering innovation and empowerment. She emphasised that sustainable tourism is not just a vision or strategy but a business model that needs to be put into practice. 

“What we want to do is to make sustainability irresistible,” she said. “The idea we promote really is that sustainability is affordable and accessible to all… and our point also is that we want to develop a new way of promoting and practising sustainable tourism, which is that it has to be localised and adapted to the Asian context, and the Mekong context.”

“We are not promoting tourism, hospitality or travel just as a business… It’s really a tool for local development and empowerment, especially for local communities,” added Germier-Hamel. “We want to put them at the centre of the experience… we want to ask them what kind of travellers they would like to attract, and they will definitely not choose travellers who don’t care about them or who just exploit their resources.”

“It’s also a big global trend we’re seeing at the moment where many travellers want to contribute to the local economies and want authentic, unique experiences. They want to really build something meaningful with their travels, so this is the kind of tourism we want to promote,” she concluded.

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