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31 Oct, 2011

After The Floods: Will Thai Tourism Now Ponder the “Karma” Factor?

India’s “Buddhist circuit” is described in the promotional literature as a “journey of a lifetime”. Undertaking this journey between Oct 22-29, it was indeed a time of soul searching. Although I was there in form, my spirit and my thoughts were in Thailand – with my family members as they struggled with the dilemma of whether or not to evacuate our home, as well as with the many suffering people of Thailand as they get hit by yet another crisis.

I also reflected on the future of the Thai tourism industry after the floods. Soon, the floods will recede, leaving behind a devastated swathe of territory, and thousands of jobless and homeless people. Nevertheless, having experienced multiple nearly back-to-back crises in the last 10 years, the Thai tourism industry is ready with the standard-operating-procedure crisis recovery plans. The government will dispense a huge marketing budget, the hotel rates will drop, airlines will offer more deals, the waiver of fees for visa-on-arrival and visa-free facilities will be extended for another year. And tourists will be back in no time.

Until the next crisis…

As Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country, there was perhaps no better place to reflect on the past, present and future of its most important job-creating and revenue-generating service industry than on a journey retracing the footsteps of the Buddha. Looking at things from an external perspective can generate fresh new ideas. Being a non-Buddhist also helps; there is in fact no significant difference between the teachings of Buddhism and Islam. At their core, all religions and ways of life are the same – it’s getting people to follow them that is the tricky part.

Lot of Light but Little Enlightenment

The “journey of a lifetime” experience was enhanced by the fact that I was there during the Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. The Buddha sought and attained enlightenment after decades of inner struggle – which the religion of Islam calls “the real jihad”. There was plenty of light during this time, but there is precious little enlightenment in either India or Thailand.

The Buddha was born in what is now Nepal but attained enlightenment in India. The tour covered these spots as well as those where he preached his first and last sermons, died and was cremated. Right outside Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, a sign made clear some of the suggested practises for ordinary mortals seeking to reach this elusive status known as enlightenment.

It was headlined “Panchasila,” or the Five Precepts. There was nothing complicated about them: 1) Refrain from killing any living beings; 2) from taking what the owner does not give; 3) from committing sexual misconduct; 4) from telling lies; and 5) from taking any intoxicant or drug.

With us on this tour were two groups of Thai pilgrims. The tour leader of one group lost her home in the floods and spent much time on the phone to Bangkok trying to get her housing estate manager to save her two dogs from the rooftop. Others were luckier; their homes had been spared the deluge. I had numerous conversations with the Thais. One saw me taking a picture of the Panchasila sign. He came over and said, almost despairingly, “We Thais don’t do very well in any of those five categories. What do we expect will be the result?”

In the days to come, after this latest flooding crisis too becomes history, the recriminations and blame-game will start. Who was responsible? Why? How? There will be the usual paralysis by analysis. All the technical, political and commercial factors will be considered. The prescribed future solutions will be along the same lines.

Very little of the analysis will include a spiritual angle. If it does come up, it will be summarily dismissed as obsolete mumbo-jumbo, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Violating the Panchasila

Look at the various crises that have hit Thailand and its tourism industry as a direct result of violating the Panchasila. The tourism industry generates much income from two of the five forbidden precepts: alcohol consumption and sexual misconduct. There is no shortage of murder and mayhem. As a country, it has been hit by military coups, environmental destruction, financial crisis, SARS and HIV/AIDS, a tsunami, political crisis that have led to tit-for-tat occupations of Bangkok International Airport and the central business district by the battling rivals. And now, devastating floods among the worst in recent history, which make the tsumami damage pale by comparison.

Now, if the Buddha offered simple Panchasila advice as far back as more than 2,500 years ago, and if Buddhism and Buddhist heritage is marketed as a central tenet of the tourism portfolio, does it make sense to ignore or reject that advice? Given the fact that “karma” is also central to Buddhist teachings, what do the Thais expect will be the result? If the Buddha made the conquest of suffering and the pursuit of enlightenment a part and parcel of the same cause-and-effect philosophy, don’t those who opt to pay mere lip service to that noble guidance have only themselves to blame for the outcome?

Why blame the politicians, or the generals, the bureaucrats, the media, the gunmen, the alcohol-peddlars, the educational system or the clergy? Certainly, none are to blame individually but all are to blame collectively.

They are all the cells that comprise society. As the numerous monks we met during the Buddhist circuit made clear in their reflections, when any of those cells begin to malfunction, something goes wrong with the system as a whole. If all of them malfunction, the cancer has spread and the entire system is doomed. It can only survive in a fire-fighting mode, putting out one fire after another but paying little attention to the root-causes of the fires.

Over time, this becomes unsustainable. But it is only when both the price and the costs of this cycle of unsustainability become too high that “alternative solutions” begin to emerge.

Shared Wisdom and Heritage

Following the footsteps of the Buddha also underpins what binds Thailand and India culturally, spiritually and environmentally – both in terms of shared wisdom and heritage, as well as shared problems. The land once walked by the Buddha must have been carpeted with trees, specially the Bodhi, in the shade of which he attained enlightenment. Over the past few decades, trees as well as mangroves have been destroyed by the millions in pursuit of economic development. This wanton destruction is one of the main causes of the water-runoff that has caused the floods. If the same heavy rainfall occurs again next year, more floods will bear down.

The Buddha went from riches to rags as the first step in his long journey. Today, societies seek to go exactly in the opposite direction. They call this “economic development.” What do they expect will be the result?

Floods, health pandemics, economic crises and various other catastrophes are often described as “man-made” or “natural”, otherwise known as “acts of God.” In reality, the classification is totally blurred. Which category does the flooding crisis fall into? Or is there a wider cause-and-effect factor at play? In the 1980s, Thailand was on the threshold of a major AIDS pandemic that would have had devastating economic and social consequences. Was that a “man-made” crisis or “natural”?

The key question is: What does Thailand and its tourism industry learn from these repeated crises? Is it conscious of its “real competitive advantage” over other countries? This advantage is not its labour costs or its geographical location or its service-minded tourism workforce. It is the country’s rich heritage and wise leadership that strives to offer guidance for a greater public good.

This wise leadership exists to this day. For the last 25 years, the tourism industry has made a handsome living by marketing key anniversaries in the life of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej. It began in 1987 with Visit Thailand Year, marking the King’s auspicious 5th cycle 60th birthday. The marketing machinery went into overdrive and tourism boomed. Then in 1999, another 12-year cycle later, the Amazing Thailand campaign was launched. Same thing happened. Today, another 12-year cycle has passed, but it’s a different story.

This year, the King will be 84 years old, his 7th 12-year cycle. He has not stepped out of the country for decades. Today, in the twilight of his life, his people are bequeathing him, themselves and the future generations a country that is largely in a mess, with no sense of direction. This is a direct and incontrovertible result of ignoring the wise advice and guidance of both the Buddha and the King.

If he dies an unhappy man, it is we, his people, who are to blame.

Sufficiency Economy

The King also conceptualised what is known as the sufficiency economy. This is a very simple economic theory that places living within one’s means at the core of financial survival. The destructive results of ignoring that philosophy were manifest in 1997, when Thailand became the first of the so-called Asian “tigers” to be relegated to “pussycat” status when a Jewish currency speculator named George Soros launched a premeditated attack on the country’s over-exposed currency. It took years to rebuild that house of cards.

The country learned a lot from that crisis, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it has been able to stave off subsequent economic crisis. Now it is facing an environmental crisis. What will it learn?

The solution is not too difficult. It is one in which the tourism industry can play a major role. It needs a new roadmap, one that will dispense with marketing as the primary driver of tourism success and replace it with a new management mechanism that rebuilds the foundations of travel & tourism, using Buddhist and the King’s guidance as a fundamental bedrock.

It may be time to trash the overvalued and essentially useless advice of the marketing, branding and crisis-management gurus and focus on implementing the free advice from the Buddha and the King. Short-term pain must be replaced by long-term gain.

The day when policy prescriptions take root in this guidance, the crises will begin to abate. They will never go away, but they will certainly recede in both frequency and intensity. As for enlightenment, it will take at least a few light years for us ordinary mortals to see the light.