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20 May, 2002

Thai Women Tourism Leaders Plan Local Chapter of Global Network

Some of Thailand’s top women executives in the travel and tourism industry are exploring the possibility of setting up their own separate grouping in the wake of the momentum generated by the annual convention of the International Federation of Women’s Travel Organisations (IFWTO) in Bangkok last week.

At least 15 individual members are needed to set up a local chapter of the IFWTO and by Friday at least 12 prominent women had agreed that it was an idea worth exploring. They include Suphanee Bencharit of SEA Tours, Joan Sarasin of Convention Organisers and Bessie Samargachan of Boon Vanit Travel. More are expected to join after the local chapter is set up.

Though women both run and hold top positions in Thai hotels, tour operators, convention and exhibition management companies, there has never been a separate grouping to represent their interests. The presence here last week of some powerful women industry leaders from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia aroused sufficient interest in setting up a Thai chapter.

One of the IFWTO’s directors, Cynthia Messer, of the UM Tourism Centre in Minnesota, said the main benefit of setting up a chapter was the networking opportunity it would afford to do business with other women and women-run companies worldwide.

She said the IFWTO would welcome a Thai chapter and do everything possible to assist. The IFWTO is keen to grow its membership in developing countries, especially as it has been hit in the last few months by a declining roll in the wake of travel agency bankruptcies and job losses caused by the travel downturn in North America.

Women play a significant role in travel and tourism, as employers, managers, employees and travellers. The industry is one of the biggest employers of women, especially in point-of-contact jobs like cabin crew, telephone operators, waitresses. As travellers, they are the primary decision-makers in many a family about choice of holiday destination.

The TAT has been targeting women travellers as part of its strategy to downplay the image of Thailand as a male destination. The development and marketing of products like shopping festivals and cooking classes is a key part of that strategy.

Of the 10.06 million arrivals last year, 4.04 million were women, a growth of 5.7% over 2001. The roughly 60:40 male:female ratio is a substantial improvement over the 65:35 ratio it used to be in the early 1990s, and also reflects the growing number of women travellers worldwide.

Founded in 1969, IFWTO aims to develop a global network of travel professionals and improve the status of women in the industry. It has over 3,000 members in 35 countries, including the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

According to a recent membership survey, 65% are the sole or primary earner in their household; 34% are business owners; 37% are in other managerial positions; 46% are in sales and marketing; 41% are employed by travel agencies and 12% by airlines; 52% earn between US$25,000 and $54,999 and 4% over $100,000; 47% are 51-65 years of age and 41% are under 50.

Men are not excluded from joining the IFWTO whose current president is Marilyn Byfield, President of Centennial Travel, Vancouver, Canada. The world headquarters is in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Last week’s convention was attended by about 120 delegates and spouses, well below the 350 originally targeted as the events of 9/11 took their toll. At one point, there was talk of cancelling it but key players like the TAT, the Sofitel Central Hotel, World Travel Service and Convention Organisers bent over backwards to ensure that it went ahead.

The benefit to Thailand is expected to be huge. Many delegates were first-timers to Thailand and run travel agencies in the secondary cities of North America where it is especially important in the wake of 9/11 to convince travellers to head for parts of the world they may know nothing about.

Among the main beneficiaries were four charities and the anti-child sex tourism campaign. Because the IFWTO committee had insisted that it would like to do something for the Thai poor, the local organisers lined up four charities to display a range of products made by underprivileged women from villages in Khon Kaen, Kalasin, Chiang Rai and other provinces.

The products, ranging from handicrafts to smocked dresses and photo-frames made from recycled telephone directories went like hot cakes at prices the IFWTO delegates could never imagine back home. Funded by the TAT, the conference satchels were of embroidered cloth made and weaved in the villages. Because many satchels were in surplus because of the lower attendance, they were sold to the delegates.

After the delegates heard that poverty was a major cause of child-prostitution, and that their purchases from the charities helped alleviate poverty, they bought even more. One of the charities estimated they had pulled in a total of about 100,000 baht.

Mrs Sarasin said she plans to suggest that the Thailand Convention and Incentive Association compile a list of Thai charities and nominate them for organisers of future conventions in Thailand to consider selecting for assistance.

One fringe benefit is the possibility that the International Skal Congress, another huge travel bash attended by more than 1,000 delegates, may be held in Pattaya in 2006. Mr Jim Power, secretary-general of Skal who was here for the IFWTO bash, did a whirlwind site-inspection of the Pattaya Exhibition and Convention Hall which is competing against a venue in London for the event.

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