A Sign of the Times

Change is evident at the ASEAN Tourism Forum

By: By Fred Gebhart

The ASEAN Tourism Forum, ATF 2009, has seen better years. Organizers put on a cheery face in Hanoi for 2009, but there was worry behind the bright facade.

Official hotels that had expected to be fully booked had rooms to spare. Exhibition center halls and hotel ballrooms set for lunch and dinner events were littered with empty tables. Press releases trumpeted an expected record turnout but skipped reporting the actual numbers.

Attendance looked strong, however, with a line snaking through the vast plaza in front of the Vietnam Exhibition Fair Centre. Once inside, the front rows of exhibitor booths were busy, if not crowded, but traffic was sparse in the back corners and side aisles. Big name suppliers like Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Accor and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts were out in force. Many smaller suppliers went home after the first day of the three-day tradeshow or didn’t show at all.

“It was a ghost town once you got past the big guys,” said Norman Meder, travel consultant for Ships and Trips Travel in Sacramento, Calif. “Some of the back areas had more no-shows than exhibitors. I found some great new products like Mekong Eyes [cruise line], which offers luxury cruises in the Mekong River delta, but a lot of the smaller exhibitors were getting no traffic at all.”

Business is down all over Southeast Asia. Most of the ten ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) reported falling tourist arrivals at ATF 2009. All ten markets have lost long-haul visitors from the U.S. and Europe. Arrivals and advance bookings for 2009 are declining as recession sweeps the globe and travelers stay closer to home.

The early fallout was obvious in Hanoi. Lutzi Matzig, CEO of Asian Trails, one of the oldest wholesalers in Southeast Asia, forecast a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in long haul leisure traffic this year. Hotels in Saigon and Hanoi, which had been boosting rates 20 percent to 50 percent annually, are cutting rates by up to 30 percent for 2009-2010. Even high-end properties such as The Nam Hai near Da Nang, Vietnam, are slashing prices. One-bedroom villas that list for $700 per night are selling for $250, according to the resort’s general manager.

The reduction in prices targets local travelers, but U.S. agents can get the same deal — all they have to do is ask. At present, the rate cuts are only being advertised in Vietnam.