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17 Jun, 2002

TAT Survey Shows Visitors Fret About Being Cheated

For years, the Thai tourism industry suffered from two serious ‘image’ problems: Bangkok’s traffic and environmental conditions, and the city’s barefaced nightlife. Now, both those complaints have been dethroned by the latest ‘image problem’: Dishonesty of the city’s public transport drivers and jewellery shops.

In a survey of 500 visitors earlier this year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) found that 56% of respondents cited this as their biggest complaint. Environmental problems were mentioned, along with other issues like safety and security, inconvenient transportation systems and problems at airports, but none ranked as highly as dishonesty and cheating of visitors.

This shift in image is a reflection of both the reality as well as specific remedial strategies.

The city’s skytrain has proved a major blessing for visitors, linking up dozens of hotels, shopping centres and visitor attractions. The opening of expressways, tollways and ring roads has been a major blessing. Tour operators have adjusted their itineraries to account for traffic conditions. Visitors still get stuck in traffic, but less than before.

Nightlife, for which Bangkok still has a major reputation, registers less in the minds of average visitors, especially since Patpong has effectively now become a ‘night-market.’ The fear of AIDS is another factor. Demand for nightlife is probably no less than before but the vast majority of visitors know that there is much more to this country than that.

Simultaneously, the TAT has been working on attracting more women visitors and families. Images of nightlife have been all but removed from TAT promotional brochures and a major emphasis placed on attracting shoppers, spa-lovers, golfers, ecotourists and others referred to as ‘quality’ tourists.

While these issues can be addressed thus, tackling dishonesty and fraud is likely to be far more difficult. Yet, it could have a more devastating impact on the country’s image because it flies directly in the face of tourist propaganda which generically presents Thai people as being ‘friendly, hospitable and good-natured.’

Having thus been lulled into a sense of complacency, visitors find themselves doubly shocked, annoyed and frustrated; they feel cheated both the incident itself as well as the official literature which sought to convince them otherwise.

TAT officials admit that cheating and fraud is the biggest source of complaints they get internally. Jewellery shops over-charge visitors by several times the actual amount, mostly in order to pay out the hefty commissions given to guides, tour bus-drivers and the owners or managers of tour operating companies.

Some shops at least provide the visitors with gems that reflect the claimed value. Others simply palm off junk which visitors only discover when they have the stones evaluated back home in pursuit of the re-sale value they were originally misled into believing they would get.

Shop-keepers generally know they have that one chance to squeeze visitors; a tourist is not generally considered a ‘repeat customer.’ At the same time, visitors face a shortage of time, are unfamiliar with the local terrain and language. Even though they blame themselves for not having been more careful, they exact revenge by going back home and spreading the word among friends and colleagues.

One British university professor who was cheated by a woman airport taxi-driver who refused to turn on the meter and then made a big scene outside the hotel when he refused to pay her the outrageous amount she demanded, called this writer to warn that these incidents were becoming common knowledge, and that if nothing was done, Thailand would move from becoming known as the land of smiles to the land of cheats.

Indeed, there are doubts whether the taxi-meter system has made things better or worse for visitors. In the pre-meter days, once the fare was decided, the driver took the shortest possible route. Today, stories abound of taxi-drivers taking fares for a spin, citing traffic-congestion and the complex one-way network in order to keep the meter ticking.

Many are known to be in cahoots with jewellery shops and offered commissions to take visitors there.

At least one major hotel group explicity warns visitors via pamphlets placed in all the rooms about being approached by people who are usually well-dressed, can speak the visitor’s language, and offer to show the visitors around, claiming to be university professors, retired government officers or other such professions normally considered ‘respectable’.

The system of tackling complaints is also inadequate. Even if refunds are given with the mediation help of the Tourist Police, the shops keep a certain percentage, which means they earn that money for selling nothing.

The TAT has been trying to address the problem, but with limited success. The 1155 help hotline is vigorously publicised for visitors to use in case of problems. Training courses are offered to the Tourist Police as well as to taxi-drivers, with a special emphasis on how this impacts on the country’s otherwise good name and ‘image’. Warning brochures are distributed at TAT offices nationwide.

Some years ago, the TAT set up a ‘Jewel Fest Club,’ a grouping of ‘honest’ jewellery shops whose names are marketed in the TAT marketing material as the recommended retail outlets to go to if visitors want to obtain quality products, fair prices and money-back guarantees in case of complaints.

Having said that, the TAT visitor survey still indicated that there was much that people like about Thailand. A full 36% said they thought Thailand was a value-for-money destination across the board. Other things rated highly in the survey were the quality of tourist attractions (33%), hospitality of Thai people (26%), tourism-related facilities (13%), delicious Thai cuisine (16%) and favourable climate (21%).

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