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22 Jan, 2007

Thailand Set to Promote Its Unique “Royal Discovery” Projects

The Thai tourism industry is all set to promote the nine Royal Discovery Initiative projects which are being positioned as places that tourists would not normally get to see but are now being opened up as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of His Majesty the King.

Although these are being presented as unique products that do Thailand and the Thai people proud, a trip last week to six of the nine projects indicated huge disparities in their supporting service facilities and standards.

By branding the projects as part of a “royal” collection, an image has been created in the public eye that suggests unique, high-quality products – as used by Thai Airways International in marketing and positioning its premium “Royal Silk” and “Royal First” class passenger cabins.

From a policy perspective, all nine projects are well chosen. They reflect the extensive work of the Thai Royal family in improving the livelihoods of the people by creating opportunities for poverty alleviation, sustainable development, preservation of culture and heritage, combatting the spread of drugs and helping people with disabilities (PwDs).

Fitting in perfectly with the new government policy to promote quality tourism, they are well located in central and North Thailand with excellent accessibility via world-class roads and highways. Most importantly, they have great stories to tell.

At the Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, for example, foreigners are coming for training to become mahouts. This columnist last week met up with five from U.K., Germany and the U.S. who had learned about the centre from the Internet and Lonely Planet publications.

Although some impressive work is being done at the centre, which comes under Royal Patronage and the administrative purview of Forestry Industry Organization, it was disconcerting to see “Conservation” spelt as “Concervation” in several of the signs indicating directions to it.

The Doi Tung Development project in Chiang Rai is clearly a benchmark, already receiving thousands of visitors a day, with sharp increases being reported since the opening of the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek in Chiang Mai, as visitors take advantage of their trip to North Thailand to see as many places as possible.

Its top-notch landscaping, cleanliness and interpretation facilities, and well-trained personnel, make it an outstanding attraction.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, facilities at the Nakhon Pathom College in the Court are rudimentary. Although similar work in promoting the skills of carving, painting, moulding, lacquering, etc., is also being done at the other royal project, the Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Centre in Nakorn Sri Ayutthaya, the latter is way ahead in terms of standards and facilities.

At Bang Sai centre, 900 million baht has been spent on a spanking new building that is well-equipped to handle small conventions and meetings, and could easily do so, except that the nearest star-rated hotel is three kilometres away in Ayutthaya. In the centre’s training unit, meanwhile, a number of PwDs, including a young girl with no hands, were painting some masterpieces.

At the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang in Chiang Mai, an explanatory video clip was of low quality and presented in an auditorium where the outside area did not look as if it had been cleaned for a while.

At the Mrigadayawan palace in Phetburi, visitors were overwhelmed by the fabulous architecture and refreshing open-air atmosphere of historic Hua Hin but underwhelmed by seeing poor quality interpretation on black-and-white computer printouts.

While the products themselves are fabulous, some of the support mechanisms are clearly inadequate and betray a lack of consistency in attention to detail. Toilet facilities and promotional material also fall short.

These do not help positioning of the projects under a “royal” brand-image. It is also surprising as some of the projects, such as Bang Sai and Doi Tung, have a long history of receiving foreign visitors.

Indeed, if their service and support facilities were to be given a star-rating, the Bang Sai, Doi Tung and Mrigadayavan palace would earn five stars, the Royal Agricultural Station four stars, and College in the Court three.

Interviews with officials at the various projects indicated that the inconsistencies stemmed from many factors, ranging from the personal commitment and professionalism of the people behind them as well the budgetary and administrative resources available from the various government offices to which they report.

Still, most of the solutions are simple and inexpensive – editing grammar and spelling, applying a fresh coat of paint, improving signage. Unless addressed fairly quickly, however, things will get worse as the rush of tourists develops, followed by the inevitable commentary that will start once the internet weblogs crank up.

That would be an inappropriate outcome for projects identified with a “Royal” brand. It would be like Thai Airways International having dirty toilets and misspelt meal menus in its Royal First Class cabin.

Further details of the projects are available at: http://www.thairoyalprojects.com/eng/home.html

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