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20 Jun, 2005

Thai Industry Veteran Says 20 Million Visitors Would Be A “Disaster”

In a remarkable shift in tone and approach, the head of Thailand’s umbrella private sector industry association said last week that the target of achieving 20 million visitors by 2008 would be a ‘disaster’ for Thai tourism.

After years of focussing on marketing designed to bring in the numbers at any cost, the comments by Wichit Na Ranong, a veteran Phuket hotelier and President of the Tourism Council of Thailand reflected a more sober post-tsunami view that the directions and policies driving Thai tourism need to be recalibrated.

Having identified travel & tourism as a key economic sector, the Thaksin administration wants to double the visitor arrivals from 10 million recorded in its first four-year term of office to 20 million by the end of its second term in 2008.

But Mr Wichit told delegates attending the Thailand Travel Mart Plus last week that Thailand had neither the carrying capacity levels nor adequately trained human resources to meet this goal.

He noted that Thailand wanted to do both — become a ‘world-class’ destination but also focus on sustainability.

‘Sustainability’ can be defined in simple terms, he said, ‘win, win and win’.

“The environment has to win as it is the product which is sold to the visitors; the local communities have to win and should have some say and participation in the development process — the ‘real local community’ and not just the chain operators. And then of course the tourists have to win.”

But he wondered how it would be possible for these three ‘wins’ to materialise if the focus was only on growing the numbers.

“The 20 m visitors target is almost double the (present) amount,” Mr Wichit said. “How can we handle the number in (terms of) carrying capacity and human resources development? How can we have world class tourism?”

He said it was “totally impossible” to achieve that kind of volume without developing the commensurate quality of human resources to provide world-class service and maintain the quality of the product.

Mr Wichit said he was not happy with the existing manpower quality and that Thailand “will never be able to produce (by 2008) the manpower required to cope with 20 m visitors.”

“Thailand has been able to survive so far because of the hospitable attitude of the people. People are kind, friendly and flexible.”

But in the long term, “we have to do something right, not to use (friendliness) to offset (lack of training) in a competitive world. One day, everyone will become friendly and where we will stand then?”

Referring to the quality of destination factor, he noted that definition of ‘world class’ was also changing with a great desire among people to go back to things that are “simple, basic and natural.”

“Now people want to go back to nature,” Mr Wichit said. “Even food is going back to herbs and not chemicals.”

He said he had just returned from trips that he regularly makes around the world to check out new developments and competing products.

In Bali, he said he had stayed at a highland resort and awoken in the morning to the sounds of the forest. “These days, people have to spend a lot of money to buy that kind of nature.”

Mr Wichit said however, that “people cannot enjoy their holiday just with these three factors (simple, basic and natural) alone. They also need supporting services but in a way that is not overdone.”

“We should treat the destination like a theatre (featuring a show that people want to see). You don’t put in extra seats just to accommodate demand. You make people want to come back, and queue up to get it.”

He warned that destinations like Phuket were coming to the end of the road.

“In the old days, Phuket survived on mining. After the mining industry declined, the people shifted to tourism.

“But now, after the tsunami, it is clear that we have no alternative economy activity to support community. Once tourism is dead, nothing functions, everything is crippled,” he said.

Mr Wichit said the tourism industry was now in need of “good balance” that would use indicators like “carrying capacity” levels to decide its future.

“In fact, I would like to see the whole economic system (of a destination), not just tourism (redefine itself along those lines),” he said. “We need a good balance between tourism and other branches of the economy that is in accordance with the potential of that area and that would provide sustainability to that area.

“We cannot be greedy,” he said. “Like food which, if you keep eating and eating, you get a lot of cholesterol.”

He said Phuket had still not recovered from the tsunami, with hotel occupancies down at 20% levels.

Among Asian visitors, he said, there was still a lingering fear of spirits and ghosts. Other visitors were beginning to return towards the beginning of the year but were again affected by news of another recent earthquake off Sumatra. The situation in south Thailand is also complicating the recovery.

He assured visitors that the new early warning systems being set in place by the Thai government and accompanying evacuation drills would make visitors “100% safe.”

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