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8 Jan, 2007

Thai Tourism, 20 Years After “Visit Thailand Year”

Although the New Year’s eve bomb blasts cast a pall over travel and tourism, it may be useful to recall that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Visit Thailand Year 1987 (VTY ’87), which commemorated the auspicious 5th-cycle 60th birthday of His Majesty the King and catapulted the industry to new heights, both within Thailand and worldwide.

In 1987, this columnist extensively covered that historic year and in 1988, wrote a book about it, which remains the only English-language document of record about that phenomenally successful occasion.

Thanks to a burst of adrenalin that united the industry behind a common cause and grand celebration, Thailand received 3.48 million visitors that year, with the growth rate of 23.6% being the highest since arrivals crossed the one million mark in 1973.

The event literally helped double visitor arrivals in the second half of the 1980s, from 2.8 million in 1986 to 5.2 million in 1990.

The massive publicity campaigns and awareness of tourism generated by VTY ’87 spawned a whole range of copycat years throughout ASEAN, Asia and the world. It conferred an element of respectability upon travel and tourism as an industry and helped awaken governments worldwide to its potential as a job creator and foreign exchange earner.

However, reading through the book again, it was amazing to see how little has actually changed for both Thailand and the industry at large.

The King’s trusted lieutenant Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, senior statesman and Privy Councillor today, was Prime Minister then, and busy fighting off political and military attempts to dislodge him, including two failed coup attempts.

Another Privy Councillor, Dr Chirayu Issarangkun Na Autthaya, was the TAT chairman. The governorship of the TAT was also up for grabs; one of the main initiators of the VTY ’87 plan, the late Col Somchai Hiranyakit, was TAT governor, and his retirement at the end of Sept 1986, three months before the launch of VTY ’87, set off a power struggle that resulted in literally a last-minute appointment of his successor, Mr Dharmnoon Prachuabmoh.

Although officially supposed to run through 1987, VTY continued until 2 July 1988 when His Majesty completed 42 years and 23 days on the throne, making him the longest reigning monarch in Thai history.

The year proved a success largely because it was driven by a sense of duty, loyalty, unity and co-operation between the public and private sectors more than willing to set aside petty differences in pursuit of a common good.

That was backed by the marketing muscle of Thai Airways International where Executive Vice President Chatrachai Bunya-ananta oversaw the marketing budget of 4,355 million baht in fiscal 1986/87, its highest operational expense that year, well above the flight operations budget of 4,351 million baht, and 19.7% higher than the 3,537 million baht spent on marketing in the previous fiscal year (the baht was worth 25 to the dollar then).

The stunning campaigns saw advertising slogans like “1987 Good Reasons To See Thailand This Year”. Another “Everdayland/Thailand” ad juxtaposed exotic scenes in Thailand with parallel scenes of dull, mundane “everydayland” (as perceived to exist in the cities of the targetted tourist-generating markets).

The old Don Muang airport also gained a new terminal in September 1987, a project expedited by VTY ‘87, amidst the continuing political bunfights between rotating transportation ministers like Samak Sundaravej and Banharn Silpa-archa over whether or not to build a new airport at Nong Ngu Hao.

The resulting rush of tourists led to sudden room shortages, and the familiar arguments with tour operators about arbitrary rate increases. Facilitated by the Board of Investment, investors scrambled to build hotels.

New destinations like Phuket and Samui emerged, even as headlines in some global media were ruing the “Paradise Lost” factor in places like Pattaya.

Even in those days, there was considerable concern about the social, cultural and environmental impact of tourism. Various committees and task forces were formed, one by Dr Chirayu under the chairmanship of his close friend, Mechai Viraivaidhya.

Many meetings were held and copious reports produced, all of which landed up on the shelf and remained there unattended as the boom got underway.

Ultimately, the book proves that little, if anything, has actually changed in two decades.

As an industry, Thai tourism remains a marketing genius and management dunce, excellent at glitz-and-glamour advertising campaigns but ultimately unable to exercise regulatory controls over anything on the ground.

As a country, Thailand remains mired in the same political turmoil, which paradoxically furnishes the only positive proof that no matter what happens, the country will always continue to ride out the storms.

[Editor’s Note: Only two printed copies of the book are available, as well as a sequel written in 1989. Universities and students of travel & tourism will find them particularly interesting. Both are being converted to a CD which is available at nominal cost. To request a CD, please email imtiaz@loxinfo.co.th ]

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