Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Fri February 19 2016

ATF 2016: The Latest Southeast Asia Travel Trends Revealed

Features & Advice | Will McGough | February 19, 2016

ATF 2016: The Latest Southeast Asia Travel Trends Revealed

PHOTO: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

The 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Tourism Forum (ATF), held in Manila, saw diplomats, tourism delegates and media from the ten member nations meet to discuss the current state and future of travel in Southeast Asia. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam compose the roster of participating countries.

Started in 1981, this was the 35th year for the conference. “One Community for Sustainability,” was 2016’s theme, highlighting ASEAN’s desire to work together as a region to responsibly develop and foster tourism.

Airport Expansions on the Horizon

Rising out among all the newsworthy items was a common theme of improved access for international travelers, including those from the North American market. Several countries reported that they were currently, or preparing to, renovate and expand their airports to accommodate more people and provide more direct flights from international cities.

READ MORE: 6 Outstanding Cruises in Southeast Asia

Host country Philippines laid out its plan for a new international airport in Bohol. Set to open in late 2017, it will be called Panglao Airport and will increase capacity to Bohol (known for its diving and unique “Chocolate Hills” land formations), to 1.7 million passengers a year.

Elsewhere in the country, the island of Palawan will complete its upgrades to Puerto Princesa International Airport by the beginning of 2017, increasing passenger capacity from 350,000 to an astounding two million a year.

Other Southeast Asia nations are not far behind. By 2020, Cambodia will have invested $100 million to expand both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports to accommodate increasing passenger demand. In Singapore, major renovations are ongoing at Changi Airport, with a new terminal, nicknamed Project Jewel, being built adjacent to Terminal 1. When it opens in 2018, it will be five stories tall, increase passenger capacity of the entire airport to 24 million per year, and showcase the world’s largest indoor waterfall (130 feet high). Terminals 4 and 5 will follow with renovations that will increase capacity to 50 million by 2020.

Travelers from North America should start to see the benefits of these new and improved airports in the form of more direct flights, or at the very least, easier connections. Here’s a look at some of the other news from ATF 2016 in the Philippines:

Singapore and Malaysia: One of the biggest potential projects in Southeast Asia is a cooperative high-speed railway link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It will be the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia, and the fastest point-to-point mode of public transportation between the two cities. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2020.

Myanmar: Myanmar tourism has exploded in recent years. After welcoming only one million visitors in 2012, the country broke three million in 2014 and welcomed 4.6 million tourists in 2015. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the growth continues, the country is beginning to highlight other regions, such as the heritage trails and caves found in the Shan State and eco/marine tourism along the western and southern coastlines, like the Myeik Archipelago.

Brunei: Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo was reflected by its recent international airport overhaul and expansion that began way back in 2011. While fewer than 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.

Vietnam: Going along with the theme for increased accessibility, Vietnam began offering visa-free entry to citizens of a half-dozen countries last July (the U.S. was not one of them). Vietnam also announced it is allocating $16 billion to build a new airport that will increase the country’s passenger capacity to 100 million per year by 2050.  

Thailand: At the moment, westerners flood Bangkok and the southern beaches. Thailand is seeking to promote experiences outside of the backpacker party circuit, like Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. That said, Thailand has little reason to alter its ways as it relates to world appeal. In 2015, it remained the top tourist destination in Southeast Asia.

Philippines: Along with the country’s airport improvements comes the addition of more direct flights. Highlighting this is the Philippines Airlines’ direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila that began last year on March 15th. Likewise, a continued push to attract cruise ship passengers has paid off: While there were only 20 ports of call in 2009, there are now 52 throughout the country.

Indonesia: Last year, Indonesia launched a “Free Visit Visa” initiative that waived visa fees for travelers from 90 countries — 75 on short stay visas and 15 without a visa entirely. Since that policy was enacted, the number of international tourists has increased by 19 percent.

Laos: Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng and Vientiane are next to catch on for what it calls “green travel.” To help, the country continues to make improvements to its roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. Laos is also in the process of upgrading all four of its international airports — Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and Savannakhet.

READ MORE: Why Malaysia Earned Its Spot As The Best Asia Pacific Destination

Cambodia: Angkor Wat continues to be Cambodia’s biggest tourism draw, but the country is working hard to promote other areas, and entice travelers to extend their stay. Specific regions include ecotourism in the northeast and the coastal beaches in the south, which remain under-visited when compared to beaches in neighboring Thailand. 

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