Thailand's reputation among foreign visitors has taken another dive following complaints of overpricing. A group of eight Malaysians visited a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai on Friday night and were together charged Bt114,080 (S$4,663) for a few hours' stay. At about the same time a Japanese tourist was sharing news of his encounter with an unscrupulous taxi driver at Suvarnabhumi Airport. The cabby refused to use the meter and instead demanded Bt700 for a trip to Saphan Kwai that should have cost about Bt300. The two incidents are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Authorities were quick to take action, shutting the karaoke bar and vowing (again) to keep the taxi system at the airport under close watch.
While they should be commended for a swift response, such exploitation could have been avoided altogether had the authorities ensured the law was being properly and continuously enforced in the first place. We have witnessed "war" declared time and again on some aspect of wrongdoing, only to watch the campaign fizzle out soon after.
The karaoke trap in Chiang Mai and the predatory airport taxi driver won't be the last we hear about this deep-rooted problem.
When the victims are foreigners, the stories of exploitation often make the headlines and go viral on social media, and they taint Thailand's lucrative tourism industry.
Of course, not even residents are immune to the rip-offs. A few years ago a karaoke bar in Samut Prakan gained notoriety after a customer complained about being massively overcharged. His testimony was almost identical to that given by the Malaysian tourists in Chiang Mai, but that time the victim was Thai. Meanwhile being ripped off at beachside restaurants is a common topic of discussion among Thais online.
Indeed, the social media are a valuable means of exposing such exploitation and warning others. More-developed nations tend to suffer less from such problems because their rules and regulations are more strictly enforced, while the social networks can be extensive and powerful enough to act as watchdogs and drive unethical operators out of business.
The contrast in Thailand is stark. Here, barely a week goes by without fresh news of scams being operated by bars, cabbies and others. Last week a Dutchman was beaten up in Chiang Mai for refusing to pay an obscenely high bar bill. By failing to respond with long-term measures, we only encourage more exploitation. It occurs now despite the fact that we have a law against overcharging, the penalties for which are seven years in jail and a Bt200,000 fine.
Like many other deep-rooted problems in Thailand, overcharging stems from weak law enforcement and a reluctance to act unless the problem is in the public spotlight. As soon as the problem fades from general view, measures against it slacken.
The authorities need to flex their muscles and crack down on tourist rip-offs, especially at the airport, which is the Kingdom's "front door" for visitors. They need to maintain the pressure to eradicate this problem and make sure it doesn't return.