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12 Jun, 2006

Need to “Institutionalise” Sufficiency Tourism Concept

One of the biggest legacies that the Thai tourism industry could bequeath to His Majesty the King is to re-engineer and restructure it along the lines of the sufficiency economy. For want of a better phrase, let’s call it ‘sufficiency tourism.’

This concept is not new. A number of Thai tourism academics and industry officials have already delved into it. All it needs is to be institutionalised as part of the national policy apparatus, and the supporting structures re-engineered accordingly. Thailand would become the first country in the world to reshape travel & tourism and create a new industry development template with potentially global applications.

One of the earliest papers presented on this was by former Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Mr. Pradech Phayakvichien, who spoke on the subject at a conference in India in 2004. He cited the Huai Hong Khrai Royal Development Study Centre in Chiang Mai, Her Majesty the Queen’s SUPPORT Foundation as well as the OTOP projects initiated by the Thaksin administration in its first term of office.

Said Mr Pradech at the time, “As a developing country, Thailand continues to be under pressure to open up its markets, sign free trade agreements and join associations and organisations that we hope will help us achieve the ‘developed’ country status. In this rush to globalise ourselves, we often lose sight of the most important things. Do we simply want to compete blindly with other countries or should we first assess the status of our country and our indigenous knowledge and way of life?

“The philosophy of economic sufficiency on the other hand asks for just the opposite. It appeals for Thais to review the past, learn from nature and use that knowledge to develop and manage the country’s economic development on the basis of good balance and moderation. Economic Sufficiency is based on development that is cautious and not overconfident.

It emphasises moderation, reason, a strong “immune system”, maturity and ethics in all actions and decisions. It is designed to ward off the consequences of any impact caused by both external and internal changes.”

Today, there is little indication that any of these philosophies have been included in tourism policies or marketing programmes. The official push is for 20 million visitors by 2008, a target that is based more on realpolitik rather than practical realities and makes no allowance for the social, cultural and environmental impact.

It leads to a further commoditisation of the industry and a discount-led race to the bottom. As yield from tourism heads south, the costs of infrastructure, development and marketing are heading north, meaning that visitors are getting better and better products and services at lower and lower rates.

This is clearly unsustainable.

Nearly 50 years of tourism promotion have placed Thailand so firmly on the world map that attaining 20 million visitors is a no brainer – if not by 2008 then certainly by 2010. A new airport is about to open, and populous China and India will generate massive growth, especially if low-cost airlines are given the requisite freedom to fly. The only obstacle to growth is the unforeseen ‘external shocks’ that occur from time to time.

Thai travel & tourism is based almost purely on marketing, with comparatively little attention being paid to management of destinations, product quality, manpower issues, regulatory structures, etc.

Applying the principles of sufficiency tourism will mean taking a much longer-term view, ensuring a better balance between visitor numbers, the resources they consume, the investment required and the amounts that exit the country via marketing fees, capital costs, etc.

If one includes the amounts spent on airports and aircraft (which are very conveniently left out of the so-called Tourism Satellite Accounts) as well as the amounts spent by Thais travelling abroad, travel & tourism is almost certainly operating in the red.

A full-scale conference just on the theme of sufficiency tourism would help bring together the best minds to put some meat on the bones of the concept. The papers could be compiled into a proper road-map that can be institutionalised and applied by both the private and public sectors.

This is not just a Thai issue but a global issue. Many destinations in the Asia-Pacific and beyond are seriously questioning whether existing policies are sustainable and whether they can afford the high costs of attracting millions more visitors in a cut-throat competitive environment, with no end in sight.

The concept of sufficiency is a perfect solution – more manageable, more realistic, less of a drain on natural and cultural resources and better suited to the broader Millennium Development Goals.

If Thailand takes the lead, other countries in the Mekong region will follow, triggering a chain reaction that could drastically reshape the industry right across the developing world.

That would be a great legacy for both His Majesty the King as well as the future generation.

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