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19 Jul, 2004

TAT Overseas Office Chiefs Rue Rackets, Cheats

Long-standing complaints about tour-guide cheats, jewellery shopping commission rackets and low quality products and service standards continue to blot an otherwise flourishing tourism industry, heads of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) overseas offices indicated last week.

Wrapping up a week of meetings to finalise tourism marketing plans for 2005, the TAT directors mentioned these problems within the broader context of an overall positive picture which projects Thailand hitting a possible 11.23 million arrivals this year and 12.28 million arrivals in 2005, assuming there are no international crises.

Defying years of effort to tackle them, cheating, fraud and jewellery-shop rackets still plague arrivals from key markets like Taiwan, Japan and China.

The TAT’s director in China Mr. Suwat Juthakorn said Chinese authorities had reported that the largest number of complaints about zero-cost tours were received about Thailand, well ahead of Hong Kong.

Zero-cost tours are rackets under which local tour companies and guides charge the supplying tour operator in the originating country little or nothing for their services and then make up for the loss of income by taking the groups on forced visits to shops, thus gaining commissions.

Other issues mentioned by the directors included quality of food safety especially at the roadside noodle-vendors and increasingly, a fear that low-quality places claiming to be ‘spas’ are beginning to rip-off tourists by offering sub-standard services.

While these are the dominant complaints in the Asian markets, some of the TAT European office directors cited the long-standing complaints in their territories: Thailand’s image problem as a result of child prostitution, sex tourism and environmental degradation of beaches and tourist spots.

Although TAT officials said enforcement of laws to control these problems remained an issue, there is no indication that they are affecting visitor arrivals as against bigger issues like poor economic conditions, terrorism, conflict or other health issues like SARS and bird flu.

No research has been done about how many visitors Thailand potentially loses as a result of people narrating negative experiences to friends, colleagues and relatives. Visitors have also suffered at the hands of rogue taxi drivers and ghost guides.

The system for reporting complaints also remains unclear. Most are sent to the TAT offices abroad as well as Thai embassies.

The Association of Thai Travel Agents website says that using the services of an ATTA member is supposed to guarantee delivery of quality service. ATTA officials say that even if companies are caught and their membership revoked, they simply set up a new company under a new name.

Registration and licensing of tour operators and guides is now the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, which was set up in 2002 to oversee all issues related to the development and legal administration of travel & tourism.

With Thailand targeting 20 million arrivals by 2008, double the present figure, the number of complaints is certain to rise proportionately and affect the goal of positioning Thailand as the “Tourism Capital of Asia,” an upmarket destination with quality products and excellent service standards.

TAT Governor Mrs Juthamas Siriwan cited “product quality” as being the third most important factor that will help attain the arrivals targets, a reference to the need to develop more quality products to cater to visitor demand. She did not refer to the various socio-cultural-environmental-legal issues affecting the product and service quality at large.

While the TAT directors mentioned these problem issues in passing, they clearly stood out like splotches on an otherwise well-laundered piece of apparel.

However, they are becoming increasingly cognizant of the fact that while tourism promotion partnerships with the neighbouring Mekong countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and China are benefitting Thailand at the moment, these emerging countries in future will become major competitors to Thailand and start attracting quality tourists in their own right.

Said Mr. Suwat of the China office: “The future is still bright if we get it right.”

Overall, the directors are optimistic that tourism will continue to grow as a result of increasing aviation access, stronger marketing efforts and promotion of niche markets.

TAT directors cited a long list of potential new source markets and customer segments: Film makers from India, golfers from Taiwan, honeymooners from Korea, spa-lovers from Singapore, Buddhist pilgrims from East Asia, medical patients from the Middle East, backpackers and senior citizens from Europe, Thai cuisine enthusiasts from Australia, physically challenged travellers from the United States, and many more.

They also mentioned the need to become cognizant of new distribution and booking trends. In Europe, Internet-savvy travellers are making more bookings online and using low-cost, late booking websites to save money.

As a result of that trend as well as socio-economic conditions, Europeans are taking more frequent, shorter vacations versus the long summer vacations that were more popular in the 80s and 90s.

TAT’s Los Angeles office director Mr. Sethaphon Chindanond mentioned the significant increase in travel by minorities like Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans, including overseas Chinese, and Afro-Americans.

New means of transport are also proving a blessing, including low-cost airlines, road links through the GMS region and the new subway in Bangkok.

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