Southeast Asia's beauty and culture is closer than you think.

Southeast Asia’s beauty and culture is closer than you think.

The 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an amalgam of incredibly diverse cultures that provide rich opportunities and daunting challenges for global travelers.

Where better to scope out both than at the 29th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum in Brunei.

The forum brought together tourism ministers, travel industry buyers (363 from 56 countries), nearly 1000 sellers (750 exhibitors), and media (87 from 46 countries) to focus on the significant developments and aspirations of this booming region.

Southeast Asia's Exotic Beauty, Opulence An Existential Excursion 1

Langkawi, Malaysia, white sand beaches, crystal blue waters

“This forum is always an ideal venue for tourism managers and policy makers to exchange issues of common interest,” said Brad Olsen, a California-based media delegate.

A gold mine for business and leisure travelers, speakers ranged from Tourism Ministers to winners of the Green Recognition Awards, featuring Brunei’s Borneo rainforest tree-planting program.

ASEAN member states range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politically, members include the democratic Philippines (largely Christian), Indonesia (world’s largest Muslim population), and military-ruled Burma, now known as Myramar.

The organization has existed for more than 40 years, but until December 2008, it had no written constitution. But the new regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods for working together.

As such, ASEAN emphasizes partnerships rather than competition.

It sets a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and establishes commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles and keeping the region nuclear weapon-free.

Brunei’s Minister of Industry and Primary Resources, Pehin Orang Kaya Seri Utama Dato Seri Setia Hj Yahya Begawan Mudim Dato Paduka Hj Bakar (now you know his relatives, too) said that the challenge would be in “putting the meat into the framework.”

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Postcards from the Edge: From Top: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Bangkok, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

ASEAN Ministers of Tourism continue to work on a mutual recognition agreement aimed at improving the quality of human resources and giving workers in tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in different locations in the region.

The buzz at the forum focused on a single or no-visa policy for the entire region. This visa-free tourism strategy would create an ideal single destination for travelers, who could move easily from country to country.

Cambodia and Thailand are closest to implementing a single visa policy, which will ease the Bangkok business traveler’s path to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

ATF’s “The Heart of Green” campaign also aims to create a united tourism image.

ASEAN’s concern for the environment continues to uplift its hotel industry. The ASEAN Green Hotel Recognition Awards are presented each year to properties that make outstanding efforts in environmental conservation.

Criteria for these hotels includes environmental-friendliness and energy conservation measures, including, environmental policy and actions for hotel operations, solid waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency and air quality management.

Stefan Christensen, editor-in chief of Sweden’s Asian Magazine, considers this tourism forum to be “more than just another trade-show, because they go to great lengths to infuse culture—including music, dancing, and fashion shows—into the daily events.”

The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its ten member-countries with a total of 567 million people: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Among some country highlights:

Cambodia will host ATF 2011. Their symbolic “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history.

Indonesia’s claim that if offers the ultimate in diversity remains legitimate—despite a few setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing.

Laos continues promoting itself as the “Jewel of the Mekong,” with a new effort to support soft tourism and local immersion.

Malaysia welcomed 23 million visitors in 2009, a 1 million increase from 2008.

Myanmar despites it’s internal conflicts, remains authentic via its isolation. The continued absence of credit card and foreign investment makes it feel like Thailand 40 years ago—which has an upside!

Many of the Philippines 7017 islands share some form American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions that invite you to come and rejoice.

Singapore’s Formula 1 Racing Week, recently hosting ZZ Top, will continue to feature international music acts.

Thailand is considering waiving their tourist visa fees, but not their exotic brand: a culture of service.

Vietnam’s French imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms, and now, a simpler visa policy.

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GETTNG THERE: For more information on Brunei visit bruneitourism .

An epicenter of Southeast Asian vacation options are here at southeastasia.

Cathay Pacific gets you there via Hong Kong. Check at flights at CathayPacific

STAYING THERE: Brunei’s Empire Hotel & Country Club takes palatial opulence to another level.

Its 5,500 swank rooms supply more than half of Brunei’s accommodations. There’s no doubt you can see this place from the moon. Check it out at empirehotel.