Southeast Asian nations must lower the cost of air travel and establish a one-visa policy if they want to spur intra-regional travel and bolster tourism, officials say.
The 10-member ASEAN has identified tourism as one of 11 priority sectors to be liberalized under a plan to create a EU-style single market by 2020.
Tourism officials say ASEAN's diversified cultural sites, culinary spread and low prices are a treasure chest but efforts to cut travel barriers and promote the region as a single destination are slacking.
The region's pioneer budget carrier AirAsia urges ASEAN to adopt a "discriminatory" policy of lowering airport charges for flights within the region to make it more affordable to travel.
A lack of land linkages in ASEAN has turned air travel into a key transport mode connecting gleaming Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to nations such as Laos.
AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes said a survey showed only 6 percent of Malaysians and around 1 percent of Thais and Indonesians travelled by air before the emergence of low-cost carriers.
ASEAN must cut airport taxes, and other fees for airlines such as route charges, landing and parking fees, he said. Premium airlines for instance charge about 1,200 ringgit (US$316) for a return ticket from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, which is not much different to the cost of flying to London, he said.
"ASEAN has got to be proactive to bring down air travel costs so that people will start looking at ASEAN as a destination," Fernandes said on the sidelines of an ASEAN business conference in Vientiene at the weekend.
Indonesia has experienced a surge in tourism since it deregulated air travel, he noted.
"I think open skies will eventually come but right now, ASEAN should look at being positively discriminatory in terms of taxes and other charges in the region so that airlines can lower their cost and airfares," he said.
The ASEAN Tourism Association deputy president Elly Hutabarat said the region had become a "hotspot" for Middle East and regional travellers, partly due to growing restrictions on entry into the US and Europe. Tourist arrivals are expected to surge to 56 million in 2006, up from nearly 50 million expected this year, she said.