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23 Apr, 2001

What is PM Thaksin’s “Real Agenda” Behind the Tourism Revamp Plans

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has long had a penchant for trying to do too much with too few resources in too little time. His attempt to revamp the tourism industry, while lauded by all concerned, is likely to face a number of reality checks on the long road between talk and action, somewhat like his efforts to overcome Bangkok’s traffic problem.

For one thing, is he prepared to risk a work-disruption at any of the country’s aviation entities? With 85% of Thailand’s visitors coming by air, and about 45% of those on Thai International, the possibility of even a single day’s disruption at either THAI or the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai) could shutdown the aviation industry, cost the country dearly and undo a lot of the good he is trying to do.

The risk has been raised by changes in the board structures of both THAI and Aerothai. While some are long overdue, such as slashing the line-up of government representatives, others like including some obvious business associates of the Deputy Transport Minister Pracha Maleenont could hardly be called a smart move, either politically or professionally.

No matter what spin is put on it, the public and the press are justified in asking that if these associates are on the boards today, how long before their companies are awarded some of the many lucrative contracts for goods and services that both THAI and Aerothai purchase each year?

If the administration had filled the boards entirely with ‘good apples’, as many of the new faces are, selling it to the public would have been a lark and truly reflected good intentions. But trying to slip in a few ‘questionable apples’ underestimated the intelligence of both the public as well as the growing desire for transparency and accountability.

It smelled so obviously bad, that the proposed line-ups are now said to be ‘under review.’ Which is good because neither the country nor the prime minister politically can afford to raise questions about whether all the publicly stated ‘good intentions’ are just a smoke-screen for their ‘real intentions’, i.e., just another form of business cronyism.

At the April 20-21 tourism summit in Chiang Mai, the Prime Minister worked hard to convince the industry of his good intentions. Obviously well-briefed, he demonstrated an overtly genuine and serious desire to professionally and methodically address the difficulties facing this major cash-flow industry.

That is a good beginning and the Premier has been widely lauded, rightly so. But many industry veterans have sat through similar summits chaired by former prime ministers Gen Prem Tinsulandonda, Chuan Leekpai, Anand Panyarachun and Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

The fact that the industry still faces gargantuan problems indicates that the pace of problems is outstripping the pace of solutions. Hence, the mood of optimism is tempered by a sense of realism, a wait-and-see attitude about whether all the talk will indeed lead to action.

Each one of the roughly 50 people who spoke during the meeting had an idea to offer or a problem to air. They ranged from the simple to the sublime, from the realistic to the ludicrous, but it did give vent to the many voices clamouring to be heard, an important part of the democratic process. Often, Mr Thaksin immediately asked the responsible authorities to explain or justify a policy. If he did not like what he heard, he suggested a review.

Now, as the well-worn maxim goes, comes the difficult part. Implementing the actions comes up against a host of vested interests, legal and bureaucratic barriers, corruption, foot-dragging, misunderstandings and misconceptions, politics, cronyism, hidden agendas and many such factors that are endemic and not just exclusive to travel & tourism.

Mr Thaksin has at least offered some hope that the government will endeavour to do its share, if the other players do theirs. As charity begins at home, that’s where the actions of his ministers talk louder than words; if he condones his ministers and party members appointing business associates to the boards of state enterprises, how credible are his public pronouncements of good intentions?

The Prime Minister, a professional businessman, has thrown some traditional management and corporate solutions at the problems, but by far and away the best management dictum is leadership by example.

He came to power on the back of many promises that he now has to fulfill, perhaps a little more quickly than he would like. But it is he who made those promises, not his generals.

During the tourism summit, he dispensed a lot of instructions on what should be done, how and by whom. As his generals will be the ones executing those orders, his biggest management problem may be keeping these generals in line, a problem not dissimilar from that faced by some of his predecessors who had impeccable integrity but could not guarantee that the people upon whom they relied to remain in power did, too.

The PM has a great opportunity here to capitalise on the “let’s go get ’em” mood he has created at the tourism summit. Any more questionable appointments like those at THAI and Aerothai will sour this mood, further affect his administration’s credibility and allow the ‘real intentions’ to overshadow the ‘good intentions.’

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