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3 Jul, 2011

Day of Reckoning for Thai Tourism

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has just completed a week-long marketing planning meeting with a forecast for 19.5 million arrivals in 2012. Whether it meets those targets will depend not on the planning but what happens on national election day, July 3, and the game-changing events set to unfold across the length, depth and breadth of the kingdom.

According to all the political commentators and analysts, trouble is looming. A heavy-duty power struggle has divided the kingdom along economic, cultural, political and geographical lines. The question is whether the outcome remains peaceful or again turns violent, plunging the country and its tourism industry into yet another crisis. With the transition to come in the highest institution of the land, the monarchy, a country that emerged victorious over both colonialism and communism now faces its biggest nemesis – its own internal convulsions.

The travel & tourism industry is worried. In the past four years, it has become the victim of literally back-to-back external and internal shocks, such as the oil price shock, the global financial crisis, the 10-day shutdown of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport by the yellow-shirts camp in Nov-Dec 2008, followed just two years later by the April-May 2010 takeover of the Bangkok central business district by the red shirts. Although the industry is proving the strength of its underlying fundamentals and recovering quickly, the repeated crises are hurting the hundreds of small & medium sized enterprises and the thousands of jobs which depend on them.

The elections are all about the possible return of the primary power-broker behind the scenes, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the “self-made” multi-billionaire. He is anticipating his party’s return to power so that he can win an amnesty and return to Thailand from his present exile in Dubai. He has been a controversial figure since his rise to financial fame in the 1990s, even more so since he allegedly used his wealth to help his party win the 2001 elections and himself the prime ministership. Although he is promising reconciliation and a forgive-and-forget attitude that focuses on the future not the past, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. In this interview with Al Jazeera, his body language and exasperation at being pressed on key issues is more indicative of the real persona behind the overtly soft demeanour.

On A Roll

So far, the travel & tourism industry is on a roll. According to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, Thailand has enjoyed visitor arrivals of 6.85 million in Jan-April 2011, up from 5.76 million in the same period of 2010. Both the TAT and Thai Airways International have got big plans ahead. The TAT’s latest marketing plan is to make heavy-duty use of social-media marketing to buttress the country’s powerful brand-image and reach out to the rapidly growing younger demographics. Thai Airways International has launched flights from Copenhagen to Phuket and Bangkok to Brussels. It has also announced a huge fleet acquisition programme.

The TAT says its biggest challenge is coping with “an era of unprecedented change in the global operating environment and regular occurrences of unpredictable external factors.” After discussing ways to adapt and adjust the plans in accordance with changes in the underlying conditions and the frequent occurrence of global and local crises, the TAT marketing teams identified six strategies thus: 1) Promote balanced tourism in various dimensions, 2) generate sustainable growth for tourism income, 3) strengthen and sharpen Thailand’s brand image, 4) develop tourism in line with a creative economy, 5) develop stronger and more effective partnership networks, and 6) optimise internal management.

Indeed, the TAT has no shortage of target markets: Honeymooners in the European market, couples seeking romance in the Asian market, and the health and wellness sector in the American market, first-time travellers in both the traditional and emerging source market countries, the expanding female workforce in the Asian markets, the senior citizens group in Europe and America, intra-regional travellers within the ASEAN region and many more. Historically, the TAT is a master at taking Thailand’s diverse range of national tourism products – shopping, cuisine, health & wellness, great beaches, culture & heritage, and many more, and pitching them in just the right way to right market at the right time at the right price. This year, domestic tourism will be a major focus of attention with stepped-up efforts to enhance the appeal of travelling within the country.

TAT Governor Suraphon Svetsreni said, “In spite of all the changes taking place globally, the TAT still has many opportunities to increase visitor arrivals. We can see many positive factors such as, continuing economic growth in many countries particularly in this region, the positive effect of people who do not cancel their travel plans but merely change their destinations in the event of unpredictable natural phenomena, and the progressive liberalisation of economic growth and transportation in the ASEAN region.”

Almost Unnoticed Event

In this tumult of change, a great historical event is going almost unnoticed — the auspicious 84th birthday of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the 7th 12-year cycle of life in Asian tradition. King Bhumibhol is the world’s longest reigning monarch. In sharp contrast to 5th and 6th cycle birthday celebrations, the 7th cycle is being marked with little fanfare. Yet, the travel & tourism industry owes much of its present success to the marketing and image-building impetus given by the celebrations of the 5th and 6th cycle royal celebrations.

When the king celebrated his 5th cycle 60th birthday in 1987, the country and the tourism industry held a grand celebration around the theme of Visit Thailand Year. The event was so successful that it triggered off a string of copycat “visit… years”, revolutionising global tourism. When the 6th cycle royal birthday was marked in 1999, the industry had risen to greater heights and launched yet another celebration alongside its new theme slogan “Amazing Thailand.” These lynchpin events provided the two most crucial reasons for their success: industry unity and consistency of purpose. The requisite budgets naturally followed.

Today, with the king in the twilight of his life, there is little attempt by the tourism industry to hail his legacy and even less attempt to heed his wisdom. Curiously enough, the Thai travel industry fails to recognise the world’s longest reigning monarch is in fact it’s greatest asset and competitive advantage. Every other country in Asia has great beaches, food, festivals, heritage sites and value for money advantages. No other country has a king like King Bhumibhol. For the industry, the king’s wisdom exists largely as an abstract philosophy rather than a practical reality. Therein lies the industry’s – and the country’s — biggest mistake.

While the king’s presence and status has been well-used to promote and market Thai tourism, in reality the king has made sustainability his life’s focus. His Sufficiency Economy concept is a masterpiece of development economics that stresses living within the national means. In concept, it matches the former Bhutanese king’s Gross National Happiness. Over the years, the Thai tourism industry has merely paid lip service to this theory.

If Thaksin returns to power, sustainability and sufficiency will recede further into the background. If stability prevails, it will be back to the big-spending days. Tourism was always a major plank of previous Thaksin administrations, and left its mark in more ways than one. Soon after the first Thaksin government (2001-2004) assumed power, a former TAT governor, Pradech Phayakvichien, known for his integrity and “clean hands,” was ousted in 2002 under trumped up charges of nepotism. He was replaced by a woman who not only became the TAT’s first female governor but also the first TAT governor to become the subject of a U.S. investigation over alleged corruption in partnering with an American couple to hold film festivals in Thailand. Well-known for her political connections, especially to powerful individuals in the former Thaksin Cabinet, her term saw the TAT spending millions of dollars on marketing, including well-publicised trips to the Cannes Film Festival. Today, she keeps a low profile and avoids the public limelight.

Certainly, Thaksin’s let’s-get-moving style of government did get things done. Bangkok’s new airport Suvarnabhumi was opened after decades of dithering. However, it was known as the largest honey-pot project in Thai history. The coup that ousted Thaksin in September 2006 was carried out just a few weeks before the opening of Suvarnabhumi, not entirely a coincidence. The former Thaksin administration also gave a huge impetus to the One Tambon (district) One Product (OTOP) development philosophy that has helped thousands of farmers supplement their incomes by producing a broad range of handicrafts and local fare that they specialise in.

Time To Reflect

If the country is facing a day of reckoning, so is travel & tourism. In 2010, the industry marked the 50th anniversary of its founding, dating back to the 1960 establishment of both TAT and Thai Airways International. As it embarks upon the next 50 years, the industry will have plenty of time to reflect on the price it has paid for not giving the king’s development philosophies higher priority on its tourism agenda.

This monumental mistake will be realised even more comprehensively when the transition takes place. What will be the state of the country at the time? How will it be able to conduct razzmatazz marketing campaigns during that period? As always happens, everyone in the industry will rue and regret not having heeded the King’s words. Many seminars and meetings will be organised to hail his wisdom and reminisce his advice. There will be much soul-searching about where it went wrong and how it could have done better.

Good things tend to be better appreciated after they are gone. That need not be the case. The industry today has possibly its last chance to dedicate itself to honouring the king’s legacy. Unlike politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who are driven mostly by the pressures of delivering short-term gain, the king’s philosophies are designed to drive long-term gain. Today, there is a huge imbalance between short-term marketing and long-term sustainability. Driving numerical growth is easy, managing those numbers is a far bigger and complicated challenge.

As of July 3, the Thai travel & tourism industry has a chance to take a long-term view, attempt to take control of its own destiny and set the global standards for a new chapter of sustainability based on the Sufficiency Economy. A country that wrote the textbooks for marketing and branding campaigns based on the opportunities presented by the royal birthday celebrations can pay its much-revered king the biggest tribute by placing his wisdom and development philosophies at the centre of its plans  for the next 50 years of tourism development.