This startup program aims to boost tourism in the Mekong region

TOURISM in Mekong has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, and is well-positioned to do even better, driven by improved subregional cooperation, infrastructure development, and stronger public-private partnerships.

Upon recovering from political and economic turmoil, the fastest growing southeast Asian subregion is welcoming more tourists in search of experiences that are unique to countries within the Mekong umbrella. Chinese tourists make up the biggest slice of the pie, but Europe and the Americas are quickly catching up, accounting for 20 and seven percent respectively.

Despite rapid growth, the region is still in its infancy when compared to visitor numbers in the rest of ASEAN. For instance, Bangkok alone was projected to receive 21.5 million visitors last year, snagging the title of “world’s most visited city”.

SEE ALSO: Bangkok beats out London to be ‘world’s most visited city’

To help redirect some of that focus to the Mekong region, MIST was born, a competition to stimulate innovation and start-up businesses in the tourism industry.

A joint initiative by Mekong Business Initiative (MBI) and Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), MIST is an exciting opportunity for those brimming with ideas to boost the industry but unsure of how to materialize them.

Jason Lusk, MIST program lead with the MBI, told Travel Wire Asia that MIST aims to harness one of the Mekong region’s strengths (tourism) as a potential engine for accelerated business development.

In this case, the Mekong region is defined as Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Pearl River Delta.

Participants can join two accelerator programs: the MIST start-up accelerator for tourism start-ups and beginners; and the MIST market entry accelerator for proven models outside the region that are looking to expand in Mekong. Applications are accepted from all nationalities around the world.

Those who try their hand at MIST will have the advantage of having their ideas and business plans vetted and workshopped through a series of relevant bootcamps and business coaching sessions.

According to Lusk, “At these bootcamps, they’ll receive business plan coaching, but they’ll also be connected to tourism ecosystem players, and various stakeholders can join in participating and providing feedback on business plans.”

On top of that, participants will also get the opportunity to connect with investors and industry stakeholders, something they would have found difficult to do when operating in a different country.

Lusk said, “Imagine that you’re a travel tech startup with a solution for upselling airline services. But your entire team are in the early 20s and they don’t have a network of airplane executives to bounce their ideas off of. That’s the role we play – being the connected tissue in helping these promoting startups and interact with stakeholders.”

However, things are a little different for market entry accelerator participants. Instead of bootcamps, a series of customized tours will be arranged for the region where participants will get matched up with supplier networks and stakeholders based on their already proven business models.

Applications open from February 13 to March 19 and entries are accepted from travel tech startups with ideas pertaining to the Mekong region, tourism businesses with proven models, and entrepreneurs with innovative business ideas.

Lusk adds, “Particularly the travel tech startups that graduate from our program gets help to advance into other accelerator programs or to get matched with VCs and mentors the rest of the way.”

Women entrepreneurs are especially encouraged to apply. “Encouraging women entrepreneurship is one of the primary goals of MBI but we haven’t set gender as being a formal criteria,” Lusk said.

Entries will be judged on job creation, community impact, and sustainability, and a US$10,000 grant will be handed to the most innovative accelerator program regardless of category.

But no matter how you look at it, you come away a winner as a participant of a program as enterprising and dynamic as MIST.