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27 Aug, 2004

What’s Your Platform? Thai Tourism Sector Asks City Governor Candidates

The 1,367-member Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) last week set a new political precedent for the Thai travel & tourism by inviting candidates for the Bangkok gubernatorial election to outline what they plan to do for visitors and the tourism industry in one of Asia’s most popular cities.

Rather than follow the long-standing reactive practise of inviting politicians to outline their policies after the elections, ATTA reversed the format, adopting a pro-active approach that sent a clear signal to politicians that the hundreds of Bangkokians who directly and indirectly depend on tourism for a living comprise a significant vote-bank.

“It was the first time we’ve done this, and the first time for any travel industry association, as far as I know,” said ATTA President Suparerk Soorangkura. “80% of visitors to Thailand come through Bangkok. And there are still no clear city policies on tourism.

“We also have many problems that affect us in tourism. This is a very important election as there are many qualified candidates. Many people have heard of their policies via TV, newspapers and the media. Now, we have a chance to hear from them directly.”

Mr. Suparerk said he had contacted each of the candidates in early August. Four of them immediately said yes — Apirak Kosayodhin, Nitipoom Naowarat, Mana Mahasuveerachai and Dr Karun Chandrangsu.

Vutthiphong Priebjrivat confirmed but did not show up. Chalerm Yumbamrung, Chuwit Kamolvisit and Pavena Hongsakula, a former tourism minister of the Chart Pattana party under the Democrat-led administration, confirmed but later apologised.

Nearly 100 ATTA company representatives attended the session last Wednesday, becoming the first in the industry to hear passionate campaign speeches and promises from four of the candidates about their pro-tourism policies, which included everything from improving the city’s traffic to its environmental and security situation.

Clearly forced to do some research about the importance of city tourism, the candidates drew upon their own background, travel experience and educational qualifications to make a number of promises, such as boosting the foreign language-speaking skills of taxi drivers and other front-line personnel to upgrading the Tourist Police.

They talked of the need for more parks, upgrading of historical and heritage sites in the Yaowaraj and Bangkhunthien areas, improving facilities in the central business districts, creating a single visitor pass useable across all modes of transport, sprucing up the hugely popular flea-markets, setting up homestay programmes, improving the quality of noodle-vendor food, among others.

The best quote came from Dr Karun: “If people come to my house and the bathroom smells, I won’t feel good about inviting them to my house. A city is like that.”

There was clear recognition among all the candidates that travel and tourism is becoming an increasingly important part of the global economy, that competitive pressures are rising among the global cities and that improved services and facilities are critical to attracting repeat visitors and maintaining market share.

Mr. Suparerk himself made it clear to all the candidates that while these ‘macro’ issues were important, ATTA members are primarily concerned about the ‘micro’ issue of parking space for the dozens of buses at the city’s most popular tourist spot, the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

He indicated that if Thailand is to get 20 million visitor arrivals by 2008, something will have to be done to accommodate the buses which are both an eyesore and an environmental nightmare.

Mr. Suparerk said discussions on this matter had been ongoing for years with a number of city governors, including Mr. Samak Sundavarej who began his own professional career as an English-speaking tour guide.

Mr. Samak had promised to solve this by building an underground car-park beneath Sanam Luang, seen as being the best and most environmentally friendly way, short of restricting the number of visitors to the complex.

However, the idea was rejected by the administrators of the Rattanakosin Island on the grounds that the entire area was a significant heritage site whose sanctity should not be disrupted by an underground car park.

Mr. Suparerk also said ATTA would like tour buses to get the right to operate in the bus-lanes to help alleviate time held up in traffic.

Whoever wins, the ATTA move has clearly awakened politicians to the fact that tourism is major employer and potential vote-bank in any election.

Also observing the proceedings was Mr. Narong Suthipongpitarn, manager of the 400-member Thai Hotels Association.

He said the format was well worth adopting for future elections in Thailand and that all the travel industry groupings should get together possibly under the aegis of the umbrella organisation, the Tourism Council of Thailand, to invite political candidates to present their policies.

“We should all join hands together on this. It is important to hear from them before the elections, not just after,” he said, noting that he would suggest it at an upcoming monthly meeting of the THA executive committee.

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