Tourists crossing a bridge in the Lao countryside.

Bridges Across Mekong Tourism: Two Travel Startups Solving the Accessibility Problem

This is the final chapter of a three-part blog covering the Mekong Innovative Startups in Tourism (MIST) Program and four interesting travel startups that pitched to an audience at the 2018 Mekong Tourism Forum at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand last June.

In the first blog post, we talked about MIST and the problems it sets out to solve, in a region beset by a persistently inefficient local travel industry despite massive tourism growth.

In the second blog post, we discovered two startups that tackle Mekong tourism from two different angles: BambooLao (official site, Facebook page) in Laos, which focuses on the mounting garbage problem created by single-use plastics upstream of the Mekong River; and GoExplore (official site, Facebook page), which creates long-stay “workations” for digital nomads further downstream in Vietnam.

In this post, we’ll meet the latter two of our four top startups.

Ecohost in Vietnam focuses on the accommodations sphere, while Adventoro in Malaysia takes on adventure travel throughout the region. Despite their differences, both of them work to bridge the gap between community-based tourism operators and discerning tourists: providing access to the former, while delivering authentic experiences to the latter.

Ecohost CEO Bui Thi Nhan at the Mekong Tourism Forum in Thailand
Ecohost CEO Bui Thi Nhan at the Mekong Tourism Forum in Thailand

Ecohost: Enhancing Community-Based Tourism in Vietnam

Community-based tourism can answer many of the Mekong’s most intractable tourism-related problems – if only local providers and tourists can meet in the middle.

“We have a lot of CBT providers and they’re always complaining about the same thing,” Jason Lusk told the audience at last month’s Mekong Tourism Forum. “They’re small, and they have trouble staying on the radar of international tourists.”

Tourists, on the other hand, sometimes complain about CBTs’ low levels of maintenance, lack of service skills, and ignorance of the market demand for local experiences. (Adding tacky tile and concrete to formerly charming traditional housing, for example.)

Thus destination management companies (DMCs) have trouble finding CBTs that they can consistently recommend to their clients.

“DMCs want to give their tourists authenticity – they want great fantastic experiences, the want great decor, they want unique experiences,” explains Ecohost CEO Bui Thi Nhan. “That’s what Ecohost provides.”

Ecohost (official site, Facebook page) intends to build CBT attractions from the ground up – helping local homestays upgrade to meet or exceed ASEAN Homestay Standards, create their sales and marketing materials (the Youtube video above is a prime example), and build an online platform to manage sales.

Member homestays benefit from Ecohost’s understanding of foreign visitors’ needs: proprietors take part in training programs on maintenance, ecotour programming, and online service. They also join Ecohost’s online booking platform to better connect with potential guests.

Calling themselves the “first three-star standard community-based tourism model in Vietnam,” Ecohost gives DMCs what they want: more choices (envisioned to eventually cover all of Vietnam), and more authenticity: “introduc[ing] visitors to the typical cultural color of that region,” as their marketing materials boast.

It’s early days yet, but Ecohost aims high: they plan to reach 60 villages throughout Vietnam, with up to 9,000 beds available for booking. Hitting those goals will mean a solid win for everyone – tourists, Ecohost, and the rural communities they serve.

Climbers ascending Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Malaysia Tourism
Climbers ascending Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Malaysia Tourism

Adventoro: Bucket-List Experiences from Malaysia to the Mekong

Unlike the previous three startups we’ve covered, Adventoro (official site, Facebook page) is a more mature travel service, to go by its membership in MIST’s Market Access Program. (To refresh your memory, MIST’s Market Access program is designed for established innovators looking to expand in the Mekong region, whether they’re based in the Mekong or not.)

Adventoro’s beyond-the-Mekong origins in Malaysia also set it apart from the other three. An adventure-travel specialist, Adventoro plans to use MIST as a stepping stone into Vietnam, and quite possibly the rest of the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

Adventoro was specifically created to issue a glaring access problem common in Southeast Asia adventure tourism. Not all individual operators have an online presence; if they do, their catalog is not always easily available, their content is not always easy to understand, and they don’t always answer their phones or emails promptly.

“The challenge with [adventure travel operators] is, the person who runs the computer and who runs the tour is the same person,” explains Adventoro CEO Ken Lau. “Which explains why the response is a week later from the inquiry, right?”

Trekking to Thi Lo Su Waterfall, Thailand. Image courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand
Trekking to Thi Lo Su Waterfall, Thailand. Image courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand

Competing booking platforms have done little to bring their member operators up to speed – as adventure travel is rarely a priority. “If you want to book adventure tourism online, you can go through the existing platforms, but you realize that their inventory is limited for adventure tourism,” Ken tells us.

Just as Ecohost closes gaps in the Vietnamese community-based tourism space, so Adventoro addresses the regional adventure-travel space – where the potential for growth in Southeast Asia is practically infinite.

“A year ago, we started with three [operators], now we have a hundred plus,” Ken explains. “We are currently are the largest adventure-travel platform in Malaysia. We’ll soon be in the rest of Southeast Asia, which has the highest and widest variety of unique adventure tour and activities.”

Adventure-travel operators benefit from Adventoro’s representation services online – the Adventoro marketing team repackages their marketing materials for better visibility on their booking platform, which allows instant-confirmation without any delay in service.

Ken makes sure the bar isn’t too high for even relatively unsophisticated operators: “We just ask them to forward [materials] to us in an email, agree on a contract, sign and that’s all.”

For adventure-minded travelers, Adventoro promises “variety,” as Ken puts it. “Other platforms focus more on mass tourism, while we focus just on adventure tourism.”

Clients get specialized service at competitive prices, along with a unique concierge service. “If they choose to, they can connect to us on email or Whatsapp, regarding anything pre- or post-trip. No more worries from potential customers.”

Adventoro is busy making inroads into the Mekong – a process that Ken Lau hopes to accelerate thanks to their involvement in MIST. “We started with Laos last month – we started in Indonesia and Thailand, the month before that. We have inquiries and transactions in these countries, but it’s extremely small at the moment.”

So says the guy who went from three to a hundred-plus partner operators in a year: it’s safe to say that time is on Adventoro’s side.

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