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30 Jan, 2012

Former Thai Tourism Chief Says Industry Has “Lost Focus,” Needs New Roadmap

(First in a multi-part series of dispatches on the Thai tourism industry 25 years after Visit Thailand Year)

BANGKOK: 25 years after the historic 1987 Visit Thailand Year, a number of industry veterans are voicing concern about the state of the industry and its future directions. With the number of arrivals  skyrocketing, and future growth almost guaranteed for a  host of reasons, there is apprehension about the growing gap between quality and quantity. A substantial consensus is emerging for the industry to start adopting the sufficiency economy philosophy of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej as a future development strategy.

One industry veteran speaking out is former Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Dharmnoon Prachuabmoh, who was one of the key planners of 1987 Visit Thailand Year, played a major role in another industry landmark, the 1992 Visit ASEAN Year (VAY) and also spent years on the PATA board of directors, including a stint as chairman. He feels that the Ministry of Tourism and Sports has not lived up to expectations, the country’s huge popular island resorts are in need of carrying capacity controls and there is a long overdue requirement for quality human resources development institutions. He also feels the visa-regimes need to be revisited to better balance security concerns and tourism earnings.

His views are supported by other industry veterans such as Mr. Prapansak Bhatayanond, former General Manager of the Erawan hotel before it became the Grand Hyatt, Mr. Opas Netra-umpai, a former senior executive of the TAT and Mrs Bilaibhan Sampatsiri, owner and managing director of the Swissotel Nailert Park and chairman of the Siam Society, one of Thailand’s foremost heritage and cultural organisations. Mrs Bilaibhan especially is concerned about whether one of the bedrocks of Thai tourism, its deep-rooted culture, is being gradually eroded both by tourism as well as all the surrounding winds of change sweeping through Thailand.

All four were interviewed by this editor as part of a series of articles planned for this year to assess the state of the union in this silver anniversary VTY year. Indeed, the industry is set to indulge in some heavy-duty soul-searching in the week of Jan 30 – Feb 5 at a number of events, including the annual joint forum of the tour operators and hotel associations and a PATA event entitled “Navigating the Headwinds”. A start was made on 26 Jan 2012 when Mr. Hathaijanok Kritakara, General Manager-Corporate Affairs, Accor Thailand/Cambodia/Laos & Vietnam, convened a special meeting of industry executives to compile a wish-list of tourism recovery priorities to be forwarded to the Thai Finance Minister.

Former TAT Governor Dharmnoon Prachuabmoh

(This dispatch reports on the interview with Mr. Dharmnoon. Interviews with Mr. Prapansak, Mr. Opas and Mrs Bilaibhan will appear in upcoming editions).

Born on 10 December 1934, Mr. Dharmnoon is an alumni of Bangkok Christian College, the Geelong Grammar School, Australia and the Wharton School of Finance Commerce, University of Pennsylvania B.S. (Economics). He joined the TAT in 1962 and was Governor between 1986-1994. His 42-year career in tourism saw him deeply involved with both the regional and international travel industry through PATA, the International Convention and Congress Association, ASEAN, the East Asia Travel Association and others. Between rounds of golf and spending time with his seven grandchildren, he still keeps a close watch on travel & tourism affairs.

Reminiscing the Visit Thailand Year days, he noted that there had been some controversy at that time when former governor Col Somchai Hiranyakit had moved him to the position of deputy governor development and then back to deputy governor marketing. The original concept was to name the event “Thailand Tourism Year”, but one of the Foreign Ministry officials said that slogan had no impact and instead suggested “Visit Thailand Year”. Once the idea was approved and formalised, Mr Dharmnoon said it was Thai Airways International’s Executive VP at the time, Mr. Chatrachai Bunya-ananta, who was also Chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, who played an instrumental role in getting both the national airline as well as the other foreign airlines serving Thailand to support the cause.

The branding image not only boosted a number of visitor arrivals but also gave Thailand a strong image that lasted for more than a decade until it got replaced by the Amazing Thailand slogan in 1999 when the next major celebrations took place marking the King’s 72nd birthday.

Today, Mr Dharmnoon voiced frustration over the branding of Thai tourism. Endorsing the “Amazing Thailand” slogan, he said he cannot understand the need to create more brands such as “Miracle Thailand” and “Beautiful Thailand.” “Why do we have to change the country’s tourism marketing slogan every year? It just confuses people.”

Mr. Dharmnoon expressed disappointment that the Ministry of Tourism and Sports had also not fulfilled its mandate since its establishment in 2002. He noted that the original reason for setting it up was because the TAT handled both marketing and development issues but did not have the power and authority to enforce any rules or laws. Although many development master-plans were prepared for places such as Phuket, Samui and Pattaya, they remain largely unenforced. “We could do nothing about them because we were not a ministry, and had no power either to enforce the legislation or to coordinate with other ministries and government departments which did have the power.”

He said although the idea of creating a Ministry had been bandied about for many years, he had resurrected the idea and proposed it to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to merge the Sports Authority of Thailand and the Tourism Authority of Thailand into a Ministry of Tourism and Sports. He said both were interrelated and sports was a logical conduit for attracting visitors to major events such as tennis, golf, soccer and others.

Although the Ministry was created, the Tourism Authority of Thailand was left intact as a state enterprise with responsibility for marketing travel and tourism. The Ministry took charge of tourism development and regulatory issues. However, problems arose because many TAT staffers previously overseeing the development issues, declined to go over to the ministry because of differences in salary scale. Hence, the initial group of officials at the Ministry knew little or nothing about either the industry or its many challenges.

As problems are escalating, Mr Dharmnoon said it is high time to do a complete evaluation of the tourism industry over the last 52 years since the 1960 establishment of the TAT and Thai Airways, and particularly in the last 25 years since 1987 Visit Thailand Year. Although much has changed for the better — especially in terms of the fabulous product development by the private sector such as boutique hotels, and health and wellness facilities, many of the old problems remain unresolved, e.g. rogue taxis, ghost guides, fake jewellery commission rackets, lack of enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, encroachment into national parks, etc.

He says marketing is less important than in the past. Thailand has a strong brand image and is surrounded by countries with large populations and rapid economic growth. The greater need is for development, planning and product preservation.  He said, “Why don’t we evaluate and review everything? What kind of problems are we facing today? Who is or should be responsible for tackling them? And how should that be done?”

He cited other challenges such as standards of public toilets, licensing and quality control of guides, homestays and guesthouses, the continued prostitution and child sex industry and particularly the absence of any reputed training facilities. He said he could not understand how, in spite of years of tourism development, Thailand still lacks an internationally-reputed hotel school. He complimented the efforts of visionaries such as Mrs Chanut Piya-oui, founder of the Dusit Thani group, for her initiative in setting up the Dusit hotel school.

Mr. Dharmnoon said not everything is the government’s job, and the private sector is equally responsible. For example, he noted, the private sector has become far more divided with many associations splitting up due to internal conflicts and egotistical turf battles among the executives. This, he said, is one factor preventing the convening of a single annual nationwide tourism industry conference to bring together all the various diverse disciplines and push towards a common goal, thus over-riding internal differences. Asked why he felt the industry could not work together, he said, “Rivalry, jealousy. They all try to be an authority on everything and come up with nothing. Now I find nothing that can bring the industry together.”

“I’m not sure there is any need for the country to be continually focused on tourist arrival numbers. Twenty million is quite enough. Many of the destinations are simply unable to cope, especially if domestic tourism is included. How do you promote or restrict tourism to places such as Samui which have limited environmental resources. Should we come up with a target of how many should go there per year? If it surpasses the carrying capacity, simply don’t promote them. That will keep the numbers down, ensure proper product development and help local operators charge an appropriate price.”

He said huge amounts are spent on marketing while destinations neglect even basic things like ensuring that electricity and phone cables do not hang down over the streets. He also cited the security problems that have come with the visa-free policies. Yes, ease of access is important but equivalent effort is required to keep out paedophiles, organised crime syndicate gangsters, drug dealers and other undesirables.

“We now have a golden opportunity to take a good hard look at what we have done wrong and what we need to do right. There is no sense of direction,” he said. “Everyone is doing their own thing. There is no coordination.” This includes the transportation and security authorities, especially as the air, land and sea linkages to Thailand will play a vital role in further linking Thailand with the neighbouring countries of the GMS and ASEAN.

He said he was equally disappointed with the marketing and promotion efforts of the ASEAN region. In his days, ASEAN included only five countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Thailand. He recalled that 1987 Visit Thailand Year triggered off copycat years in other ASEAN countries and culminated in the first Visit ASEAN Year 1992 to mark the 25th anniversary of the regional association. Although ASEAN today talks of economic, social and cultural integration, he said it was the tourism sector that had first tried to integrate ASEAN 20 years ago. Mr Dharmnoon, along with his counterparts, former Indonesian tourism director general Mr Joop Ave, and former tourism marketing chief of Malaysia Mr Abdullah Jonid, who later became the first head of the ASEAN Tourism Information Centre, were the original troika that put in motion the VAY.

Today, he said, in spite of ASEAN growing to 10 countries with some of the world’s best tourism products in the world, the regional grouping had fallen to a low where it has no brand image and is being forced to fall back on the recommendation of an American consultant who produced a campaign suggesting a shift to “Southeast Asia.”

Mr. Dharmnoon said today there’s probably no other region in the world which can offer the sheer diversity and packaging opportunities of ASEAN, and yet there is not even a single map that can bring it all together and make it easier for both trade and consumers to check out all the options. Such diversity grows further if neighbours such as India and China are included in the tour options.

Mr. Dharmnoon also bemoaned the state of PATA which he said is “gradually disappearing from the scene.”

The entire industry has lost its strategic focus, he says. It is long overdue for a new roadmap to be created based on the new realities and new business models based on long-term sustainability such as the King’s sufficiency economy.  The ministry needs to be strengthened, created and conservation and preservation laws enforced. This requires taking a long-term view that is more holistic and favours prevention over cure. Mr. Dharmnoon castigated those who think the sufficiency economy has no place in tourism. “It is more relevant than ever. It is both possible and good,” he said.