Get Thai tourism back on track

Get Thai tourism back on track
MOVE IN RIGHT DIRECTION: Tourists relaxing at Patong beach in Phuket. The authorities have removed areas that were marked as "private property" on public beaches.

The past 12 months has been a difficult time for the aviation industry, with a series of air disasters. But has this affected global tourism? The answer is no.

According to the latest The United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO) World Tourism Barometer report, international tourist arrivals reached 1.138 billion last year, an increase of 51 million or 4.7 per cent over the previous year.

The outlook is bright. The UNWTO forecasts international tourism will grow by 3 to 4 per cent this year. By region, growth is expected to be stronger in Asia and the Pacific, with an expected increase of 4 to 5 per cent.

It is no surprise that Myanmar, having opened its doors to foreigners just four years ago, has projected a 50 per cent increase in tourist arrivals to 4.5 million this year. The country is improving infrastructure like roads and airports while easing visa regulations, in a bid to attract spending of over US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion), which would benefit nearly a million workers serving tourism and related industries.

No country in the world turns its back on visitors. With them comes the clear benefit of direct spending on travel, accommodation and food. Indirectly, tourists help advertise the country to the world. Travellers also provide insight, particularly to foreign investors looking to expand business overseas.

In these circumstances, despite criticism of human rights erosion under its junta-installed government, Thailand is hopeful of drawing more tourists and their money. And given that Thai tourism and related industries employ two million workers, it is a sector that cannot be ignored.

After seeing 28 million tourist arrivals last year, Thailand has set a target of 30 million for this year. In fact, the Tourism Authority initially set that same target for 2013. But for political turmoil, we could have achieved it well before now.

The junta has done well in some areas here. It started with areas on public beaches annexed as "private property". The reserved seating and umbrellas have now been swept from famous beaches. Let us hope this remains the case once the junta relinquishes control.

Travellers, both local and foreign, like to shop and stroll around - some footpaths in Bangkok have been cleared for that purpose, though largely to the dismay of vendors and motorcycle-taxi riders.

Tourist police are now reportedly tackling cabbies who refuse to take fares. On Sunday, undercover police took to streets and some 20 drivers were called in for attitude adjustment. The crackdown should help improve things, sending a clear message to all taxi drivers that they cannot refuse passengers.


There is a lot more to be done, though.

Consider that France - comparable in size to Myanmar and some 100,000 sq km bigger than Thailand - drew over 80 million visitors in 2012. The notoriously grumpy locals are reluctant to speak English, but visitors are willing to brave the language difficulties for a taste of French cuisine and to glimpse treasures like the "Mona Lisa".

That same year, despite the language barrier, 15 million people visited Poland while 30.4 million visited Germany, compared with 22.35 million visitors to Thailand. The European countries are dwarfed by Thailand in size - Germany is 357,168 sq km, Poland slightly smaller - while Thailand covers 513,120 sq km. Both boast long histories and beautiful scenery, but Thailand is also rich in this regard.

One difference I have observed is in airport facilities. The airports in the German and Polish capitals are large, with international standard facilities - but so are those in the smaller cities.

Here in Thailand, only Suvarnabhumi and Phuket airports match that standard, while in other cities, the airport is small and "provincial" in style. For convenience of travel within those cities, it is better to arrange your own transportation.

Albeit late, the tourism authority is doing the right thing in promoting new destinations. However, if it ignores the bigger picture, no one will benefit. Bad first impressions could kill the appeal of newly promoted destinations from the start. Say Loei is promoted, but the only way to get there is by bus or pre-arranged transportation. If you go there by bus, the only way to get around the province is by private taxi or small bus. Having limited transport choices means limited opportunities for hosts to make money and for travellers to take in the real charms of the destination.

Another thing that marks out European countries is that their domestic and foreign visitors tend to enjoy the same treatment. Fewer taxi drivers or restaurants are known to overcharge foreign tourists. The Thai tourism authority should realise that it is issues like these that must be addressed.

In its latest campaign, the agency invites local and foreign tourists to "Discover Thainess". However, the Thai-language ads play on the word "Thai" as if it is the same as "Thainess". Muay thai is fine. But somtam thai? The reality is that Thai papaya salad originated in the north-east as a salty dish. The so-called somtam thai, with its sweet-sour flavour, was invented in Bangkok much later.

The ad also seems confused about who its target is, encouraging travellers to "enjoy Thainess" by standing still when the national anthem is played in public. Thais do this out of duty and respect. Is it really something for travellers to enjoy?

Thailand has plenty with which to draw tourists, but badly designed ads and poorly thought-out strategies would not help.

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