The Greater Mekong Subregion includes 6 countries, covers 2.6 million square kilometers, and is called home by more than 300 million people.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program (the GMS Program) was initiated in 1992 and aims to foster economic growth and reduce poverty in the subregion by strengthening economic linkages among the six member countries (Cambodia, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province in China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam).

Cooperation within the framework of the GMS Program covers nine sectors, namely: (i) tourism; (ii) transport; (iii) energy; (iv) telecommunications; (v) human resource development (vi) environment and natural resource management; (vii) trade facilitation; (viii) private investment; and (ix) agriculture. The GMS Program adopted a three-pronged strategy, called the 3Cs to achieve its vision of a prosperous, integrated, and harmonious subregion. These are: (i) increased connectivity; (ii) improved competitiveness; and (iii) a greater sense of community. Since 1993, GMS cooperation in tourism has been coordinated by the GMS Tourism Working Group (GMS TWG) formed by representatives of the national tourism organizations (NTOs) with the Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism Activities (AMTA) as its secretariat.

In 2004-2005, at the request of the GMS TWG and with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a GMS Tourism Sector Strategy (GMS TSS) was formulated. The strategy envisioned the GMS as a single destination, with strong focus on culture, nature and adventure. The intention of the strategy was to inspire not only the governments of the subregion, but also all its stakeholders, particularly in the tourism industry, to promote a sustainable development of tourism, respectful of its people, and cultures, enhance and protect its unique natural and cultural heritage, and fostering poverty alleviation schemes. Finally, the strategy delivered a truly unique Mekong brand of tourism that showcases the subregion’s incomparable beauty, diversity, and spirit, and brings its people a better quality of life.

To work toward the overall goal and objective for the development and management of the tourism sector, seven core strategic programs were identified including: (i) marketing; (ii) human resource development; (iii) heritage and social impact management; (iv) pro-poor tourism development; (v) private sector participation; (vi) the facilitation of tourists to and within the subregion; and (vii) the development of tourism-related infrastructure.

The 16th Meeting of the GMS TWG, held on 25 March 2005, culminated in the signing of the Phnom Penh Declaration on Mekong Tourism, in which the GMS TWG Member Countries agreed to: (i) adopt the draft GMS TSS; (ii) conduct regular GMS TWG meetings with high-level representation; (iii) establish the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) to assist the GMS TWG with the implementation of the GMS TSS and to raise funds from private sector and development partners to support it; (iv) an annual contribution of $15,000 per member country towards MTCO’s operational costs; and (v) Thailand being the initial host of the MTCO. The MTCO became operational in 2006.

The GMS TSS was first implemented through 29 projects, 13 of which are ‘spatial’ dealing with planning and development of priority tourism zones and 16 of which are ‘thematic’ dealing with specific GMS-wide interventions. Except for the projects involving the marketing of the subregion as a single destination, and monitoring cross-border developments and movements of tourists, all project implementation were undertaken at the GMS country level with one GMS country taking the overall lead, with coordination at the subregional level being undertaken by the MTCO.

In 2010, with ADB support, a mid-term review of the strategy was conducted, resulting in a refocused GMS TSS 2011–2015: Jointly Developing the Mekong as a Single Destination, narrowing down the scope of priority programs to: (i) tourism-related human-resource development; (ii) pro-poor sustainable tourism development; and (iii) sub-regional marketing and product development.

Since its establishment the MTCO has continuously evolved, taking on board lessons learned and adapting to new situations. At present, MTCO plays a vital role in fostering and facilitating effective collaboration within the GMS between governments, development partners, the private sector, academic institutions and the media on the implementation of the GMS TSS by: (i) serving as the secretariat for the GMS Tourism Working group (GMS TWG); (ii) leading the development and promotion of the GMS as a single tourism destination; (iii) coordinating the development and implementation of projects identified and committed to under the GMS TSS; and (iv) leading GMS tourism knowledge production, centralization and dissemination.

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