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18 Feb, 2008

New Thai Tourism Minister, But Same Policies

Like with many other aspects of the new government’s thought-process, clear signs are emerging of the tourism policy reflecting the same old directions of the former Thaksin administration –- couched somewhat in terms of language and priority, but largely the same.

In his public and official statements, Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Khowsurat is stressing lofty targets for visitor arrivals and earnings, which is almost identical to the Thaksin regime’s high-flying, (and failed) target of 20 million arrivals by 2008.

He has also talked of promoting tourism investment (which parallels both Mr Thaksin’s and present Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s emphasis on building infrastructure) and promoting small & medium sized enterprises (similar to the OTOP scheme).

Given his background as a lawyer, Mr Weerasak has stressed reconciling some of the conflicting and contradictory laws governing Thai tourism. Other “directions” include routine marketing suggestions like brand-building and development issues such as building up a database of Thai tourism sites.

In formulating his thoughts, many of which will be crystallised in the government’s upcoming policy statements, Mr Weerasak has sought to reconcile the policy platform of his own party (Chart Thai), the dominant political party in the government (PPP), and the ongoing tourism workplan of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports as well as the Tourism Authority of Thailand. He has drawn upon the advice of close friends as well as his own personal impressions.

But what he, and just about every previous democratically-elected minister, fail to do is to bring to the industry a wider sense of perspective, history and context. Hence, they all land up repeating the same mistakes of their predecessors.

Had the minister’s ‘vision’ focused on breadth, rather than depth, he would have known that two very important historical occasions are due by the year 2010 when 1) His Majesty the King will surpass the 64-year reign of the UK’s Queen Victoria and become the longest reigning monarch in world history; and 2) both the TAT and Thai Airways International will mark the 50 th anniversary of their founding.

He would also have known that the tourism industry is influenced more than ever by the rapidly shifting sands of global change, everything from customer profiles to crisis management, and that many of the conventional marketing and branding strategies are becoming less important.

And he would have known that the two most critical needs of the hour are 1) the creation of Global Centre of Excellence in travel & tourism training, education and research, and 2) law enforcement to ward off everything from environmental degradation and ghost guides to airport taxi rip-offs, shopping scams and drunk-driving deaths on our resort islands.

All these are inter-linked and inter-related.

Today, the key performance indicator of a tourism industry anywhere is not arrival totals or earnings per tourist but visitor satisfaction levels, a figure that simply not exist in Thailand at an industry level.

This KPI is vital because satisfied visitors no longer narrate their impressions, both positive and negative, to friends and family but also stick them on blogs, social media, chatrooms and corporate intranets, generating the most powerful marketing medium of all — word of mouth.

Today more than ever, the quality of visitor experience is based not just on our “hardware” but “software.” This means both well-trained manpower, for day-to-day service delivery, and proper law enforcement to preserve product quality and handle trouble and complaints.

Just like the former Thaksin administration made it a policy imperative to build a second Bangkok airport, so too, it is vital for Thailand to build a global centre of excellence for manpower, training and research, one that will raise local service standards to higher levels and also attract students and faculty from all over the world, especially our immediate catchment areas in the GMS and ASEAN.

And, instead of a database of tourism destinations, a database of the letters of complaint received daily by the TAT, the Tourist Police, Thai Airways International, the airports, hotels, tour operators and the private sector may help pinpoint some of the common problems visitors face.

Instead of listening only ivory-tower policy-makers, academics and corporate heads, it may be useful to talk to receptionists, guides, airport staff – those really at the coalface of service delivery.

The minister may then find that the sufficiency economy principles of HM the King may be a better platform for his future policies than another tourism master plan or textbook by a management or marketing guru.

When it turns 50, the Thai travel industry will be in middle-age territory. Yet, a closer grassroots look will show that many of the structural weakness that were around 20 years are still around today.

If these can be addressed in a more sustainable and holistic way, the minister will not have to worry about meeting lofty arrivals targets. Satisfied visitors will spread the word, and the rest will come naturally.

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