The Mekong region is teeming with ambitious entrepreneurs with ideas for driving the tourism industry to bigger, better things. But it takes more than a great idea to become a great business. Eilis Williams speaks to Jens Thraenhart, founder of a program connecting startups with the wider tourism sector as well as some of the entrepreneurs making waves in the industry. 

The Mekong Innovation Startup Tourism (MIST) accelerator program, established by Thraenhart, helps startups take their businesses further. With backing from the Asian Development Bank (ABD), the program offers mentorship from established players in the sector as well as opportunities for networking and even partnerships.

More than 250 startups from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar applied to take part. Four will win innovation grants of $7,000-$10,000.

Fresh ideas are critical to growing the tourism industry ecosystem and provide benefits for better established players in the sector. Thraenhart saw how bringing fresh blood together with veterans would be advantageous for all stakeholders, and thus MIST was born.

“It can be very beneficial because on one hand we can help these young entrepreneurs who may have an idea with some validity but need help shaping it, getting the right connections, or executing these ventures,” Thraenhart said. “On the other hand, the established tourism industry benefits from using these new products or technologies to enhance their businesses.”

The event is connected to the Mekong Tourism Forum, the first Bootcamp event took place in Siem Reap in early May at which 12 finalists were invited to a three-day training and evaluation program. Here they had the chance to network with experts from Amadeus Next, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Buffalo Tours, Clickable Vietnam, Entrepid Advisors, Gobi Ventures, the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, and

Startups had the opportunity to be mentored by industry experts at Siem Reap bootcamp. Photo credit: MIST

“There’re a lot of changes happening so if we don’t adapt we’ll fall behind,” said Thraenhart. “Tour operators and hotels can be slow to adapt so learning from these entrepreneurs in their 20s is essential to staying competitive. If we’re not progressing we’re regressing.”

He said the region has had to rely on creativity because investment and resources are scarcer than countries with big budgets for tourism boards.

“We are looking to innovate in our own way; be locally relevant and leverage the one thing we do have, which is a very passionate industry. We are trying to create an ecosystem to bring passionate people together and have everyone contribute to the industry,” Thraenhart said.

The 12 startups selected are: Artisan Origins by TAEC and Ma Te Sai, both from Lao PDR; BookMeBus, CamboTicket and GuideInsider from Cambodia; Bayo, I Love Asia, Dichung, Chameleon City and Morning Rooms from Vietnam; and GoP and ezStay from Myanmar.

“We are looking to innovate in our own way; be locally relevant and leverage the one thing we do have, which is a very passionate industry.”

The selected startups were assessed on their attitudes to social empowerment – particularly of women and minority groups – as well as the practicality and application of the project or company.

The selected startups were assessed on their attitudes to social empowerment – particularly of women and minority groups – as well as the practicality and application of the project or company.

One such enterprise giving women the chance to try something outside of their comfort zone is I Love Asia (formerly I Love Hue) a motorbike tour company run by and for women. Founder Nguyen Thi Huong Lien set up the motorbike tour company, aimed largely at female travelers.

“The best way to travel [in Vietnam] is by motorbike. Many students have free time and it helps them improve their English by talking to foreigners.” Lien said this interaction boosts confidence and empowers young women beyond just earning a wage.

Lien started the company in Hue with just $100 and it has already grown to include Hoi An. The next step will be to launch in Hanoi in August as well as expanding to other Vietnamese cities. She added that launching in other countries – initially Cambodia – is a possibility for next year.

Another aspirational young woman is Quynh Nguyen whose website Morning Rooms is a platform for finding quality 1* and 2* hotel rooms in Vietnam. Born out of her own frustration that budget rooms were often disappointing, Quynh built a branded budget hotel network offering rooms with a money back satisfaction guarantee. She launched in Ho Chi Minh City in 2016, has already expanded to other cities, and is eyeing neighboring countries.

“From the beginning we aimed to expand across Vietnam; we are now expanding to other provinces including Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang as well,” Nguyen said.

“In the near future we will seek to reach out to neighboring countries such as Laos and Cambodia because there’s no platform like us in those countries. I think there’s a huge opportunity here.”

She added MIST is the perfect opportunity to find travel partners in these countries: “Collaboration is essential to leverage our hotel expansion system as quickly as possible.”

“It’s a proven business model, which is very successful in Thailand and Indonesia. I believe those countries are no different to Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia so if they can be successful there then we can do it just as well. We are the pioneer in Vietnam and Laos,” she said.

Another group with its sights set on rapid growth is CamboTicket, a centralized booking site for buses and boats that is transforming the way people travel around Cambodia. Marketing manager Ricardo Balmori described the travel booking system in Cambodia previously as being “completely broken” with multiple outlets selling tickets at inconsistent prices with limited information about timetabling or advance booking.

CamboTicket sells seats at set prices and gives travelers a chance to book in advance with a simple-to-use site and clear information.

The group received funding this month to break into new markets. Balmori said: “We are currently in the exploration phase, we have a lot to bring to other countries with similar needs,” adding that funding would allow things to happen more quickly.

Serving the domestic traveler market in Myanmar, GoP is a platform selling niche tour packages. Co-founder Nyunt Win Aung said it was launched to bridge the gap between tour operators with often out-of-date information on their websites and platforms offering just hotels or transport.

“There are some travel websites, but most of them focus on foreigners. GoP focuses on local people and we position our platform as the best tour platform for local people,” Aung said.

Having received support from an accelerator program in 2016, Aung and co-founder Nyan Lin Tun have been able to develop the product. Aung said the vision is to provide authentic local experiences for all people, but currently it is geared up for Burmese users only.

But it isn’t just adding a practical service that impressed the judging panel. Innovation that supports communities and works with minority groups is also being recognized. Tara Gujadhur, who set up Artisan Origins by TAEC in Laos, wanted to share the ethnic diversity of Laos and promote the traditional work of artisans with locals as well as tourists.

Working with producers from the whole country and selling through a store in Luang Prabang, Gujadhur said artisans benefit from a higher sale price for the handicrafts sold in store and customers are assured what they’re buying is made in Laos the sale will benefit the producer.

The finalists will present their business plans to a judging panel and investors at the annual Mekong Tourism Forum in Luang Prabang on 6 – 9 June.

This content is also available in: Vietnamese