If you’re reading this article then you’re aware of the tremendous tourism opportunities in Southeast Asia.
The Asia-Pacific is the world’s fastest growing region for inbound tourism and the MIST Market Access Program offers access to four of the most promising destinations: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV).
In 2017, Vietnam saw a 31% increase in visitor numbers making it Asia’s fastest growing tourist destination. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are not far behind.
The MIST Market Access Program is designed to bring innovative ideas and tested business models from other parts of the world to CLMV. But where are the opportunities? What do these countries need?
“MIST is different because it is focused on solving problems, and secondarily driving business,” says Jens Thraenhart, CEO of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office and one of the founders of MIST (pictured left).
“I think that many times when accelerator programs or VCs look at startups, they are looking at investment opportunities. We are flipping that around and instead we are looking at the program in terms of solving tourism problems in the region.”
MIST is looking for various solutions in areas that hold potential. In this article, Dulichable speaks to the organizers, consultants, judges, tour leaders, and previous winners to break down eight of them.
Personalization and Enhancement of the Travel and Hospitality Experience
Travelers are increasingly wanting personalization. There are limitless opportunities to provide niche tourist services across the region, but there is also potential in connecting travelers with these experiences through innovative travel tech.
“The personalization of travel is something we have seen a lot of startups working on – because there is so much opportunity to leverage big data,” says Jason Lusk, project focal for MIST (pictured left). “I’m talking about apps that help users build tailored itineraries or connect with the right tour guide. It would be particularly interesting to see MIST applications from Chinese startups in this space, since the Millennial FIT tourism Chinese outbound tourism market holds such massive opportunity for our neighboring region.”
“These startups already exist. The question is whether they have Mekong region inventory in their databases.”
Hotels can also play a “big part” in the personalization and enhancement of the travel experience, according to Matt James, senior manager, corporate strategy and business development APAC for Amadeus (pictured right).
He says: “Travelers are becoming increasingly distinctive, foregoing a traditional holiday in favor of a more personalized experience.”
“There are a lot of great hotels being built in the Greater Mekong Subregion but they aren’t doing enough to promote to inbound visitors. It is only getting more competitive in this space, especially with the larger hotel groups. The way hotel owners present their hotel is important, tech offers the possibility to present the hotels in the best possible way.”
Better Security for Travelers and Their Transactions
Despite the Mekong region being a relatively safe place to travel, solutions that keep travelers, their families, and their finances safe will always be in demand.
Jason says: “Travel tech solutions can help make travelers feel more secure. Apps that help people out when they’ve lost their wallet, for example, or concierge services that provide tailored information to solve problems quickly.”
There are also opportunities for outbound travelers going outside of the Mekong region. Vietnam has a rapidly growing middle class who are traveling more and more each year for both business and pleasure. Yet fintech and insuretech solutions for these travelers are still behind other parts of the world.
“Travelers from countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion often have problems with financial services when abroad, such as withdrawing money abroad safely and cheaply. Fintech can provide solutions,” Jason adds.
Multimodal Transportation Planning and Booking
“Within cities we have Grab and Uber, and booking plane tickets is easy with Skyscanner and other price comparison apps and websites,” explains Tran Thuy Hai, tour leader for the MIST market access tours in Vietnam (pictured left). “But there is a gap when booking other modes of transport like bus and train – foreign travelers still struggle to book the right tickets at the right price.”
“This is a challenge, especially with a chaotic bus system and thousands of operators, but there are definitely solutions,” says Hai.
In Cambodia, a solution has already been developed in response to the struggles that locals faced booking tickets.
“I found it really difficult to actually buy a ticket,” laments Langda Chea, CEO of BookMeBus, a bus ticket booking platform. “You needed to call the company to find times, often you are transferred from one bus to the next, and there are a lot of scams. It was a waste of time and there was poor customer service.”
BookMeBus won a MIST market access tour in 2017 to bring their tech from Cambodia to Myanmar. There tour is taking place in 2018.
“We planned to grow the business and expand. Myanmar was a big market and I saw potential. The technology was there and I was ready to scale,” Langda explains.
Regional Connectivity Between Destinations
“Why is it that so many tourists come to Vietnam and never return?” Asked Torsten Edens, country director for Go Beyond Asia (pictured left) back in 2016. “I firmly believe that the classic north to south (or south to north) tours are partially to blame. I also believe that regional cross boarder tours may provide somewhat of a solution.”
In Can Regional Cross Border Tours Help Improve Vietnam’s Low Rate or Return Visitors?, Torsten pairs northern Vietnam with northern Laos, central Vietnam with southern Laos, and southern Vietnam with Cambodia. Solutions that start facilitating these types of tours, such as cross-country itinerary builders and services that smooth over border crossings and obtaining visas are needed.
Hai also understand the potential in seeing the Mekong region as a region rather than a set of distinct countries.
She says: “Vietnam has good borders with neighboring countries. With Laos there are at least five and with Cambodia at least two. If we can connect the area together, it will keep people staying here for longer and increase the cross-cultural experience.”
“What we need is tech and non-tech solutions that make moving between these places easier. Apps that focus on unique experiences in one country would also do well to showcase similar experiences in neighboring countries.”
Reduced Environmental Impact
“The travel industry, and hotels and resorts in particular, generate so much waste and it can be very expensive to dispose of it,” explains Jason. “Anybody that’s providing recyclable or waste-reduced packaging for hospitality services is something that MIST would want to bring to the region.”
There are many non-tech solutions to the environmental issues facing the Mekong region and the tourism industry. Companies that address and reduce the environmental impact of tourism will find opportunities, but so will charities and social enterprises.
“Social enterprises like Soap for Hope are already working with hospitality providers. We need more in this region.” Jason adds.
Automation and Inventory Management for Hotels and Resorts
“There is a huge opportunity for smaller hotels to use tech to help manage operations more efficiently, especially when it comes to listing availability,” says Matt. “We have seen a couple of solutions in the market that are performing well. Cloud-based systems with room inventories are a big help when it comes to managing reservations.”
Cloud-based systems and other tech solutions are needed for hotels and resorts to streamline operations. There is a lot for hotels to consider, including oscillating seasonal volumes, differing high seasons across different markets, and shifting trends and customer traits. Travel tech can help monitor and manage these fluctuations.
“It is all about making it simple for the hotel, not just when it comes to the technology and offering a cloud-based solution, but also commercially. It is important to offer these hotels a business model that takes into consideration the fluctuating and season volumes that gives the hotel flexibility to grow their overall booking volumes.” Matt adds.
Improved Conversions for Booking Platforms
“I think that this is a really rich area,” says Jason. “It’s all about data analysis and data modeling, serving up the right opportunity at the right time.”
Technology that helps personalize the user experience should automatically lead to improved conversions for booking platforms. Larger booking platforms such as Booking.com and Trailfinders are incentivized to list a variety of options. They are good for general travelers wanting to find the best deal but not for users looking for a specific accommodation or tour type.
“There is definitely room for sites and apps that are offering a very specific type of tour or accommodation type. This is simply making it easier for people to find what they want. And if they do find what they want, they’ll book it.”
There is also potential in tech that allows the sales team to connect with potential customers early on in the customer journey, such as chatbots on websites and automated email marketing.
“I’ve seen booking numbers increase dramatically after websites have incorporated chatbots,” says Jason.
Solutions to Overtourism
Uncovering solutions to overtourism is key to the MIST Market Access Program and the Mekong Coordinating Tourism Office. Tourism may be booming in the Mekong region but this is largely restricted to specific tourist hotspots.
“There is potential in Vietnam’s diversity in terms of tourism products. There are still a lot of hidden and unexplored areas,” says Hai. The same is true for Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
Travel tech and travel operators that draw people away from crowded hotspots and offer a viable alternative will succeed in the Mekong region. This is already beginning to happen in northern Vietnam, with travelers beginning to opt for Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay over Halong Bay, or Ha Giang and Mu Cang Chai over Sapa.
Facilitating access to places like Mu Cang Chai is also important.
“One of our mandates is inclusive growth, so getting visitors away from the most popular tourism areas to other areas, and balance the economic benefits tourism can bring to a wide range of the population,” explain Jens. “But there are still issues in actually getting to more remote places and secondary and tertiary destinations. That’s why travel tech supporting better ticketing services, for example, would be useful. This would make getting to less popular destinations much easier.”