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23 Aug, 2004

Thailand Not Ready for 20 Million Visitors, Says ex-TAT Governor

FORMER Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Pradech Phayakvichien last week voiced concern about the government’s visitor arrivals target of 20 million by 2004, and asked whether the country is ready for such a deluge.

Speaking at a seminar on Cultural Heritage Tourism in the Greater Mekong Subregion organised by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, Mr. Pradech indicated that if simply getting to 10 million visitors after 44 years of tourism promotion had created social, cultural and environmental problems, trying to double that number in a mere four more may simply multiply those problems by an equivalent proportion in a similar time frame.

He stressed that he was not raising this issue as criticism of official policy but as part of his duty and responsibility to alert the government to the potential dangers.

“I am personally quite worried,” he said. “Politicians are free to voice their goals and ambitions but it is the duty of concerned organisations and officials to also give them a clear idea of the scenarios. Eventually, all have to accept responsibility (for the outcome).”

He added, “It has been 44 years since (Thailand) started promoting tourism and we have just reached 10 million over this period. We have also seen a lot of adverse affects of tourism, in terms of safety and security, environment, human resources development.

“The demand side is okay. But the supply side is not quite ready yet and is not being emphasised much by the authorities. It exists in the policy somewhere but not in action.

“Politicians announce these plans as part of the economic stimulus programme and all (supporting) activities are designed to drive that growth, like low-cost airlines and marketing promotions. But these will all create quantity, not quality. This worries me.

“We need clear scenarios. Are the proper regulations in place? Do we have adequate human resources?”

Mr. Pradech, who is now an advisor to the TAT, noted that many tourist spots are facing severe congestion like Pattaya, Phi Phi, Samui and Phuket. “On Samui, half of the (hotel and accommodation) rooms are not licensed because they are encroaching into illegal areas or breaking other forms of environmental laws.

“This is not healthy growth if we just go for that kind of scenario,” Mr. Pradech said, warning in his talk that short-term gain could lead to long-term pain.

However, speaking at the same seminar, Dr Utis Kaothien, senior advisor, policy and planning, National and Economic Social Development Board, said that if Thailand is to get 20 million visitors by 2008, it wants the neighbouring countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion to get at least 10 million out of them.

As part of the administration’s ‘prosper thy neighbour’ policy, the NESDB has identified 18 potential ‘sister cities’ along Thailand’s borders with Laos, Cambodia and Cambodia that could be developed commercially in order to narrow the economic gap between the neighbours.

Tourism, trade, industry and agriculture had been identified as the sectors that could benefit through increased investment in infrastructure and facilitation, with tourism singled out for priority.

These cities are as follows:

<> Laos-Thailand: Ban Ton Pheung – Chiang Saen; Savannakhet-Mukdahan; Houay Sai – Chiang Khong; Thakhek – Nakhon Phanom; Pakse – Chong Mek; Muang Nguen – Houay Kon; and Thanalaeng – Nong Khai.

<> Burma-Thailand: Tachilek – Mae Sai; Myawaddy – Mae Sot; Koh Song – Ranong; Dawei – Kanchanaburi; Phaya Tong Xu — Three Pagodas; and Bopkin – Bang Sapan.

<> Cambodia – Thailand: Koh Kong – Trat; Poi Pet – Aranyaprathet; Pailin – Ban Pakkad; Samroeng – Chong Chom; and Anlongveng – Chong Sangam.

He said the policy is to boost people movements to an extent that would “make borders meaningless”.

Tourism is seen as key because it is labour-intensive and generates considerable direct and indirect income, especially in downstream industries like souvenirs and cottage industries, gems and foodstuff.

He noted that a number of joint marketing activities had already been carried out by the Mekong countries, such as the intensive promotions at international trade shows by the TAT, and their future success would depend on the extent of the collaboration and cooperation amongst the countries involved.

Thailand had already taken initiatives like abolition of the cross-border fees even beyond office hours for crossing over into the neighbouring countries, and was working to create a single visa, although progress on this is “very slow due to management problems”.

Discussions were also under way to allow people to travel beyond just the immediate provinces of the border-crossing areas, using just their border pass or ID cards.

He said the government understood the need for a pool of trained manpower, and the Mekong Institute in Khon Kaen had been entrusted with the responsibility with creating a network of training centres, trainers and training materials.

However, Dr Utis raised a few eyebrows when he said that developing the border areas economically would help reduce problems like drug trafficking, goods smuggling, illegal labour and prostitution as well as socio-economic problems stemming from the operation of border casinos.

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