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Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for clinching the ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement that includes passenger services as India is one of the top 10 sources of tourists in the ASEAN region. During the ASEAN-India Summit in Brunei capital Bandar Seri Begawan last week, Lee said a comprehensive air transport agreement was needed to expand tourism and trade between ASEAN and India.
According to him, the easiest way to engage ASEAN and the rest of Asia would be to open up air links. With more flights to more destinations, business people will travel more, and so will tourists. As passenger traffic goes up, business will increase and investments will follow.
Lee said both sides should give the negotiators the full mandate to conclude a mutually beneficial agreement.
Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has said such an agreement would increase business opportunities for India and Southeast Asia. "If there is better air connectivity, a lot more can be done," Shanmugam said during a visit to India in July.
Also, at the ASEAN Summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pressed for increased connectivity with ASEAN's strategic partners like India. This again figured in his talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This IANS correspondent accompanied the prime minister on his visits to Brunei and Indonesia.
The air transport agreement with ASEAN would increase air travel seating capacity on flights and liberalise air cargo services between the two sides.
It was some 10 years ago when then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee first announced an open skies deal with ASEAN. But negotiations had not really taken off.
Asked about this, AshoK Kanth, secretary (East), in the External Affairs Ministry, said: "The annual India-ASEAN connectivity coordination committee meeting is scheduled later this year and we expect progress on this important issue."
Sanjay Bhattacharya, joint secretary (South) in the External Affairs Ministry, said India has air services agreements with most of the Asean countries, which are "fairly comprehensive". Also, there is an ASEAN Air Services Agreement under which there are 18 additional points.
"These are absolutely open and the services can be open within these 18 points."
The focus of these 18 points has been on the secondary stations as well as the Northeast because for India it is very important to link the Northeast to the ASEAN, he said, adding the air services can be immediately taken advantage of.
"Also, we have already got Batik Air to open direct air services between Indonesia and India. And there is a code-sharing agreement which has been worked out between Garuda and Jet," added Bhattacharya.
Tourism is one of the service industry success stories in Asia now and it is driving regional growth. A number of factors such as an expanding middle class and rising affluence are contributing to the trend.
And across the region, new airports, hotels and terminals for cruise liners are being built to cater to the growing demand.
The sector grew seven percent last year, the highest of any region in the world, despite the economic slowdown in the US and debt crisis in Europe.
Analysts say tourism brings in revenue directly to people, causing little uprooting and social upheaval as in the case with some other industries. And it helps expand other services.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), tourism accounts for around 4.6 percent of growth in the ASEAN region, which could be as much as 10.9 percent if indirect contributions are included.
There is intense competition in the region to grab the tourism pie. Singapore is trying to promote its advanced healthcare services to draw tourists. Some 14.4 million visitors arrived in the island republic last year.
Malaysia is among the top 10 destinations, with about 25 million visitors a year, while nearly nine million visit Indonesia.
In June, Myanmar announced a $500 million "Master Plan" to increase tourism. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the sector could provide up to 1.4 million jobs and garner a revenue of $10 billion to the country by 2020.
The Philippines earlier this year said it would spend $700 million over the next two years connecting the country's tourist spots to attract more foreign tourists.
The World Travel & Tourism Council is forecasting a steady rise in tourism over the next few decades.
The 10-member ASEAN is racing to create a single market and production base, an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. To achieve this, it adopted a master plan on connectivity (MPAC) in 2010.