Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

2 Oct, 2006

Tourism Research Papers Say Much Needs Fixing in Thai Tourism

Now that Thailand has a world-class airport, perhaps it is time to put in an equivalent effort into creating a world-class travel and tourism industry.

Media coverage of the early round of inevitable growing pains – which will soon be fixed – has obscured the symbolism of the new airport which over time will go a long way towards positioning Thailand as the Aviation Hub of Asia.

But just a week before the opening, researchers and academics from Thai universities had convened for the Fifth Asia Pacific Forum at which they presented studies and papers indicating that little has changed in the rest of the industry.

One paper on the status of Pattaya, arguably Thailand’s best known resort, referred to it as a mature destination facing the same old problems of over-development with all its negative impacts on natural resources, quality of facilities and infrastructure, a threat increasingly faced by other Thai resorts.

Other papers probed sustainable tourism development using the popular beaches of Patong, Karon and Kata in Phuket as case studies. One paper discussed the quality of Phuket’s tourism guides.

Another paper discussed the role of medical tourism in Phuket, noting that although visitors were happy with the standards of treatment and care, there were still complaints about communications problems and overcharging.

A number of papers were devoted to the issue of crisis management, now almost an annual occurrence. The travel and tourism industry held its breath again when the September 19 regime change took place but so far that seems to be having a relatively minor impact on the overall industry arrivals.

Another study that discussed Thai tourism websites said many of them lose a lot of business by not responding to customer enquiries. There were also discussions about agrotourism, homestay programmes and the quality of food service in Cha-am.

The fact that these grassroots issues are still on the development agenda only heightens the urgency of addressing them. While the new airport will go a long way towards bringing in more numbers, focussing on the quantitative element may only widen the gap with the long-standing qualitative shortcomings.

Don Muang welcomed its first flight in 1914 and by 1961, the initial suggestion for moving it to Suvarnabhumi was mooted. At that time, Thailand was getting fewer than one million visitors.

Both Thai Airways International and the Tourism Authority of Thailand were founded in 1960, but it was not until 2002, when visitor arrivals had crossed Ten Million, that Thailand got its first full-fledged ministry to oversee the vitally important regulatory, enforcement and management functions of the industry.

With 15 million arrivals projected next year, it was long overdue that Thailand should have a new airport. But the real benefit of giving 15 million visitors a truly world-class arrivals experience will only be felt if the post-airport experience proves to be equally world-class.

Essentially this reverts to narrowing the long-standing gap between the marketing of Thai travel and tourism and its management, between the emergence of world-class shopping centres and convention halls and the unresolved issues still being probed by the academics.

Over the years Thai tourism has been witness to a number of slogans. Thai Airways International’s long-standing “Smooth As Silk” has occasionally been bolstered by one that wanted it to “Reach for the Sky.”

The TAT’s high-impact “Amazing Thailand” slogan was scrapped and then went through a string of changes before settling on the latest one, “Thailand Unforgettable”. That will certainly prove true for those who had to wait endlessly for their baggage at the airport last week.

A world-class airport is essentially a microcosm of the entire industry — the first point of welcome, and the final point of farewell.

But people don’t come to countries to see its airports. And the difference between enjoying a world-class experience at a spanking new airport and being ripped off by a price-gouging jewellery shop or a rogue taxi driver does not go unnoticed.

It only grows the imperative of readjusting the emphasis from marketing the industry to better managing it.

This will mean everything from giving the Tourist Police better training, equipment and facilities to fighting crime, to helping local administration officials enforce the law to improving the quality of human resources output from travel & tourism training schools and universities.

In a new era of internet chat rooms and weblogs, the real image of the country will be shaped less by multi-billion baht advertising campaigns and more by the quality of visitor experience right through the supply chain and then spread through the world of travel by word of mouth.

In a few years, Suvarnabhumi will become just another airport, outclassed by bigger airports such as that emerging in Dubai. But it will always remain a gateway to Thailand, the country that people really come to see and experience.

It is only logical that if the gateway is world-class, the rest of the industry should be, too.

Comments are closed.