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Published: 22:58, November 29, 2023 | Updated: 09:36, November 30, 2023
High-speed rail network fast-tracks links between GBA and ASEAN
By Mark Pinkstone
Published:22:58, November 29, 2023 Updated:09:36, November 30, 2023 By Mark Pinkstone

The successful Greater Bay Area Conference 2023, themed “When GBA Meets ASEAN — One Heart and One Mind” and co-hosted by China Daily and the Hong Kong Coalition in Hong Kong last week, covered many areas of cooperation and development, mainly aimed at green fintech, connectivity and tourism, in these two major regions, which represent about 680 million people, all of whom need to be connected to further their well-being.

A speaker at the conference, Darany Phommavongsa, director of the Tourism Management Department of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism in Laos, painted a woeful picture of how her country suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic, but was extremely optimistic about its future, thanks to the China-Laos high-speed rail system.

In 2019, Laos had 4.79 million tourists, bringing in $934 million which represents 9.1 percent of the country’s economy. Then the dark cloud of COVID-19 loomed over the landlocked country, and in 2022, visitor arrivals fell to 1.3 million, a serious blow to the economy.

But the cloud had a silver lining, and in the first nine months of this year, some 2.4 million foreign tourists arrived in Laos, and another 400,000 to 800,000 are expected in the high season of November and December, bringing the total to between 2.9 million and 3.3 million. The top three markets for Laos are its neighbors Thailand (45 percent), Vietnam (19.3 percent), and the Chinese mainland (21.3 percent). The Laotian authorities estimated that around 368,000 Chinese travelers will visit Laos in 2023, up 21 percent from last year.

The surge in visitor numbers has been partly attributed to the popularity of the China-Laos Railway and the expressway linking the capital, Vientiane, and the tourist hot spot of Vang Vieng.

The railway has also put the tourism sector on a fast track, so to speak. The Xinhua News Agency noted in August that with 19 million passengers and 24 million metric tons of freight delivered and its cross-border cargo transport covering over 10 countries and regions, the railway has become a docking project between the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Laos’ strategy to convert itself from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub in the Indo-China Peninsula, benefiting both countries and beyond.

Thanks to the launch of the China-Laos railway cross-border passenger train service in April, tourism has been revived in Laos, which is a top priority for the Laotian government’s efforts to revitalize the economy this year. According to the Vientiane Times newspaper, tourism experts predict that millions of Chinese tourists will visit Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, and many of them will travel on the China-Laos Railway.

Darany told the conference that Laos is set to become ASEAN chair next year, and the Visit Laos Year 2024 tourism promotion campaign will be rolled out. She said the ministry looks forward to exchanging experiences on heritage conservation and to making full use of the region’s rich cultural heritage resources aimed at promoting sustainable tourism.

She also said that the China-Laos Railway will help facilitate tourism exchanges within ASEAN.

Analysts believe the connection will not only inject vitality into the economy along the line but also strengthen the trans-Asian railway system

The nine mainland cities and the special administration regions of Hong Kong and Macao straddling the Pearl River estuary, which make up the GBA, are linked to ASEAN by the 986-kilometer Guangzhou-Kunming high-speed railway traveling at 200 to 350 kilometers per hour, passing through Nanning en route. And the high-speed link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou handled 17 million passengers so far this year, while traveling time between the two cities is less than one hour. The express rail service, which started operations in 2018, has become the first choice for many mainland tourists visiting the city.

Included in the ASEAN connectivity program is the 873-km Kunming-Bangkok railway under the BRI, which aims to connect countries by encouraging cross-border passenger/cargo transportation and tourism between the countries it crosses. Work on the network, which started in 2017, will include three main routes from Kunming to Bangkok and is expected to be finished in 2027. The eastern route of the network is being laid via Vietnam and Cambodia; the central route will be via Laos; and the western route will pass through Myanmar. Overall, the $15 billion rail system, covering 6,617.5 km, will link China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Wirun Phichaiwongphakdee, director of the Thailand-China Research Center of the Belt and Road Initiative, who has made several trips to Laos to conduct research into the China-Laos Railway, said that the artery running through the Indochina Peninsula will further promote economy, trade and investment and boost common prosperity under the BRI when linked to the China-Europe freight train network.

Analysts believe the connection will not only inject vitality into the economy along the line but also strengthen the trans-Asian railway system. When the China-Thailand railway is completed, it will take trains from the Thai capital of Bangkok to the country’s northeastern border town of Nong Khai, where a bridge will connect it with the southern end of the China-Laos Railway.

But the current star is Indonesia, which successfully launched Southeast Asia’s first high-speed rail route on Oct 2. The 142-km track between Jakarta and Bandung, the provincial capital of West Java and the third-largest city in Indonesia, cuts travel time from three hours by conventional railway to just 40 minutes using the high-speed train, reaching a top speed of 350 km/h. The $7.3 billion rail system, built under the BRI, was financed by the China Development Bank (75 percent) and a local consortium.

Before the launch, Chinese Premier Li Qiang took a test ride on the new bullet train, aptly named Whoosh, with Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan during the ASEAN Summit in September.

The author is a former chief information officer of the Hong Kong Government, a PR and media consultant, and a veteran journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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