Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

5 Jan, 2012

25 Years After “1987 Visit Thailand Year”, New Tourism Era Set to Dawn?

BANGKOK – Recent announcements by the Thai travel & tourism industry indicate that a long-overdue mindset-change is under way in the future approach to development and sustainability. After spending 25 years since 1987 Visit Thailand Year (VTY) doing heavy-duty marketing, the Thai tourism industry is poised to enter a new era by rebalancing its management and development policies more in line with the King Bhumibhol Adulyadej’s guidance and advice. Indeed, a far more deep-rooted shift in the national psyche is looming following yet another warning from the king to “learn the lessons of the floods” and prepare for “more hardship and suffering” in future.

In medical tourism parlance, Thai tourism is seeking cures for problems it could have prevented, but didn’t. A more balanced form of tourism is set to emerge. In recent weeks, the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau and Thai Airways International have invoked the King’s approach to sustainable development for their future plans and projects. On January 17, the country’s foremost heritage society, whose patron is the King himself, plans to hold a panel discussion on the “tense relationship” between tourism and culture. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is planning to give sustainability and conservation an even higher profile on its promotional and marketing agenda. For the first time, Bangkok Airways, the country’s largest privately-owned airline, distributed a basket of entirely organic farm products as New Year gifts, a symbolic tribute to the country’s rich agricultural heritage.

In a way, the country has come a full circle since 1987 Visit Thailand Year, a grand tourism event launched to commemorate the king’s 60th birthday, the auspicious 5th 12-year cycle of life in Asian tradition. Backed by a united industry and a massive budget, the blitz lifted visitor arrivals and cemented the kingdom’s position on the world tourism map. It also triggered a string of copycat “Visit XXXXX Years” by other countries and regions. In the years since, inspite of numerous other local, regional and global crises, Thai visitor arrivals have continued to grow. However, this growth has created a separate set of problems related to sustainability, security, income distribution and environmental preservation. Many are the direct result of both the country and its tourism industry paying scant attention to the warnings sounded by the King in his public speeches.

Running out of time

These warnings are now coming home to roost, and Thailand is running out of time to change course. The latest flooding crisis was the longest the country ever experienced and did an estimated Bt328.2 billion (about US$10.3 billion) worth of damage to some of the most important tourism, transportation and industrial parts of the country. As the tourism industry was projected to have generated total earnings of Bt731 billion baht for all of 2011, the floods effectively wiped out about 45% of that.

Hitting just at the start of the Thai tourism high season, the floods lost the country about 400,000 visitors and 16 billion baht (about US$504 million) worth of direct tourism income. However, thanks to the surge in arrivals before the floods struck, the full year 2011 was still expected to end with arrivals of about 19 million visitors, well above the original target of 15.5 million visitors. For 2012, the TAT has set a conservative target of 19.55 million international visitors. Domestic tourism was also affected, although many upcountry areas, especially the Pattaya region, saw a huge outward migration of Bangkok residents seeking refuge from the danger zones. At the time of writing, more floods had struck, this time in South Thailand.

In covering the crisis, the local newspapers reminisced the King’s words way back in 1995 when he had warned of the danger of flooding, as well as its causes, and suggested preventive strategies. In his annual New Year message for 2012, the king invoked the floods to sound another grim warning. The Bangkok Post summarised his words thus: Under the main headline “King Urges Thais to Learn From Floods,” a subheadline stated: “His Majesty’s New Year Message Reminds People They Must Prepare For Suffering In Their Lives.”

According to the Post’s translation of the king’s words, he called on the Thai people “to live with consciousness, be mindful and brace for unwanted events in the future”. Referring to the floods as the most severe disaster the country will face, he said it was a reminder of the fact that people cannot only expect happiness in their lives. “As I have said many times, suffering, threats and hindrances will come to our lives from time to time. Nobody always stays happy,” the King said in his statement. “Everyone thus must prepare their body and mind for facing and preventing hardships with carefulness, reason, knowledge and unity.” According to the Post, the King urged Thai people to adopt Buddhist teachings by trying to remain mindful and being aware of what they think and do all the time. “In carrying out their duties, everyone should do so in a manner appropriate to the situation,” the King said.

Similar past reminders have been communicated by the king on many other aspects of Thai social, judicial, economic, political and spiritual life. Most have been ignored. This time they struck home. With the king now 84 and ailing, a rush has begun to rectify the damage.

Outpouring Of Consciousness

Whether Thailand’s trials and tribulations are the result of bad “karma” or human screw-ups, or both, the public is gripped by an outpouring of consciousness about the looming “suffering” to come as a result of the cycle of back-to-back crises. Alongside the doom and gloom, local media also sought to boost morale with reports about the compassion and selflessness that marked the rescue and recovery phase of the two-month flooding crisis. The Nation newspaper gave its “Person of the Year” 2011 award to “You”, all the people of Thailand who rose in unison to help the flood victims.

Most significantly, the changing mindset is gaining a higher profile at the national level.

The most prominent example of this is Thailand’s bid to host World Expo 2020 on the basis of the proposed theme “Redefine Globalisation: Balanced Life, Sustainable Living”. According to Mr. Akapol Sorasuchart, President, TCEB, the agency assigned to oversee the bidding, the proposed theme “is based on His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s philosophy of Sustainable Economy’ – a strength that we will highlight for the world to see.” Launching the proposed theme and bid at the Board of Investment Fair 2011 in Bangkok on January 4, 2012, Mr. Akapol said that because misgivings about globalisation in its current form were becoming widespread, it was important to present a “theme for an expo with a difference.” Indeed, the Thais see this as an opportunity to host the “first sufficiency Exposition,” a reference to the king’s “sufficiency economy” concept which stresses balance, moderation and greater national self-reliance.

Thailand’s bid is facing competition from the UAE, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, with the final decision due in November 2013. Although factors like Thailand’s internal stability will figure, much will also depend on extent to which the country itself demonstrates the benefits of a sufficiency economy by first implementing its principles domestically.

While TCEB cites the linkage between economic development and the sufficiency economy, another institution, the Siam Society, is set to probe the links between tourism and culture. The title of a planned January 17 panel discussion says it all: “Tourism and Heritage: A Tense Relationship.” Being held to commemorate the king’s 84th birthday, the discussion is intended to act “as a case study of ASEAN experience” too.

Says the announcement: “In ASEAN countries, tourism often accompanies cultural heritage in an uneasy relationship. When properly conceived, tourism at a cultural heritage site or heritage area provides economic benefits to local people, businesses, and governments, and tourism also serves valid educational and recreational objectives. On the other hand, when not properly planned and controlled, or if cultural heritage conservation is undertaken only with tourist revenues in mind and is not undertaken for its own sake responsibly and professionally, then tourism all too often degrades cultural heritage sites through exceeding carrying capacity, introducing inappropriate commercial activities, and distracting from an appreciation of the true heritage values embedded in the site. The result of this is both diminished cultural heritage value and diminished quality of tourist experience.”

It adds: “This discussion will focus on whether the concerns of cultural heritage protection have been properly looked after in the planning, promotion, and management of tourism to Thai heritage sites? How can the relationship between cultural heritage and tourism be better managed? What are successful Tourism and Heritage conservation policies or experiences in other ASEAN countries that could be applied in Thailand?”

Organised as part of the Siamese Heritage Protection Program, the Thai-language discussion will feature tourism personalities who are prominent in the protection of Thai culture and heritage such as former TAT Governor Pradech Phayakvichien, present Chairman of Thailand Community-Based Tourism Institute, Professor Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture, and Mrs Bilaibhan Sampatsiri, the Siam Society President and owner of the Swissotel Nailert Park. The invited keynote speaker is Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of ASEAN.

Biofuel Flight

Another Thai travel institution pursuing “alternative” scenarios is national airline Thai Airways International (THAI), this time in the field of energy consumption. On 22 December, 2011, it became the first airline in Asia to fly a commercial passenger flight using biofuels. In the announcement, airline president Mr. Piyasvasti Amranand invoked the King’s agenda, saying that under the Environmental and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy, or “Travel Green,” THAI has developed an important project on sustainability, in line with the King’s vision on renewable energy.”

Said the announcement, “To reach sustained production of biofuels for aviation in Thailand, THAI will bring together organizations and businesses such as petroleum producers, research firms, educational institutions, aircraft and engine manufacturers, and different government bodies affiliated with the aviation industry to take part in the development. This project called “Sustainable Biofuels Development for Aviation Industry” aims to create both demand and supply, through clear national policies on biofuels, which can help to generate revenue in the agricultural sector. An important outcome is the potential for greater cooperation among the different aviation bodies at the national level for sound support and policies on sustained development of biofuels.”

At the same time, other aviation-related state enterprises such as the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (which handles the air-traffic control over Thai skies), Airports of Thailand and the national petroleum authority also took the opportunity to underscore their own green credentials and environmental protection efforts.

The most effective walk-the-talk message was conveyed by Bangkok Airways which distributed New Year baskets of all-organic products such as red rice bran cookies, two bottles of mango juice free of preservatives and additives and two packets of brown rice grown at its own Sukhothai Organic Agriculture Project [www.kaohomsukhothai.com] that utilises the space around Sukhothai airport, which is also owned by the airline. This was a revolutionary change from the calendars, diaries, pens and other popularly-circulated clutter, much of which lands up in the trash, doing a good deal of environmental damage.

More “Balance”

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is also seeking to stress the linkage between tourism development and environment, primarily because that is what global travellers want. Although the TAT’s primary raison d’etre is tourism promotion, which means driving numbers, since taking over in 2010, TAT Governor Suraphon Svetasreni has injected the word “balance” more strongly into his marketing efforts. Because it has no regulatory powers, the TAT seeks to build awareness of environmental conservation as a competitive advantage. One of the measures in its portfolio is a rewards and incentive-based scheme which seeks to ensure that Thai tourism companies which are serious about their environmental responsibilities are recognised and promoted on the world stage, and become examples for others to follow.

As a policy, this direction-change has only just begun. Just as medical tourists discover much too late the wisdom of the prevention-over-cure philosophy, the recuperation process will involve painful and expensive hardships and suffering. If crises are supposed to be opportunities in disguise, Thailand has had no shortage of them. However, in the short-term rush to recover tourism numbers after each crisis, the long-term picture has taken a lower priority. Now, the growing realisation of missed past opportunities is being balanced by a newfound sense of urgency, and serious desire to close the gap. That will require a fundamental restructuring in the way the country does business, which will not be easy. The fact that different arms of Thai tourism are pushing the cause, albeit from different standpoints, is a positive step. If Thailand can do for the future of tourism management what 1987 Visit Thailand Year did for tourism marketing, the king’s legacy will have again had a global impact.