Tourism is thriving in South Asia with overseas visitors flocking to its vast array of natural, cultural and historic attractions.
In the first quarter of 2011, UN data showed international visitor arrivals up 14% from the same period the year before. A large number of those visitors travelled to multiple countries across the subregion, drawn to its many world-renowned and colorful Buddhist heritage sites. This growth in arrivals is expected to continue as tourism infrastructure and services steadily improve.
Maximizing the collective benefits of this growing wave of cross border tourism is an important priority for Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh under the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) program. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is working closely with them to achieve this goal.
In September 2011, ADB sponsored a conference caravan which held forums across the five countries to look at ways of stepping up cooperation in key areas, including connections to, and management of, important cultural and natural tourist sites.
An ADB team, overseen by Keiichi Tamaki, Senior Urban Development Specialist in the South Asia Department delivered a series of presentations on current issues facing the subregion. These included developing a cross border tourism action plan for SASEC, principles for managing tourism heritage sites, planning sustainable cross border tourism 'circuits', marketing destinations, and strengthening human resources for tourism development.
"The potential for expanding cross border tourism in the subregion is huge but it will require all countries working together to produce attractive, well-managed and sustainable products," said Mr. Tamaki.
Both public and private sector tourism stakeholders attended the forums where they held lively discussions on current challenges and potential solutions for increasing cooperation. They also looked at strategies for planning and marketing cross border tourism 'circuits', and managing the impact of visitors on natural and heritage sites.
Participants visited a heritage site to give them a chance to see how their concepts for tourism development and destination management could be applied in reality, and to give them insights into the challenges that face the sector.
Through the forums, ADB gave stakeholders in the five countries an opportunity to think about the development of viable cross border tourism products, including Buddhist heritage sites and pilgrim trails, eco-tourism, adventure activities, and others.
Despite South Asia's great tourism potential however, there is still much to do to reap the full benefits of cross border tourism.
Future development and management of the industry will require close cooperation between the public and private sectors, along with local communities, to ensure that the benefits are fully inclusive, and that natural and heritage tourist sites are kept financially and environmentally sustainable.