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2 Feb, 2013

PATA Thailand Chapter Debate: Is Thai Culture Good or Bad for the Thai Tourism Industry?


Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil and Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka participated in a no-holds-barred debate on this topic organised by the PATA Thailand Chapter Chairman Bert van Walbeek on 30 January 2013. They did not disagree on much, but the event certainly advanced a culture of debate within PATA and highlighted the critical need for honest discussion on industry issues.

Said Mr van Walbeek: “We have seldom heard so many positive reactions on one of our Chapter events and the “Thai Culture” debate is still resonating in many places! It is clear that “food for thought” is what our contemporary members are looking for and you both sure gave them “a plateful” of that!”

Added PATA CEO Martin Craigs: “The insight and eloquence of the hard talk debate was only surpassed by the good natured camarardie around the meetings edge….a great example of PATA chapter leadership ….with PATA HQ backing……”

He said the debated was an example of  “the quality of thought leadership we are displaying at micro and macro PATA, and opportunity to build membership.” He promised to take further “this now distinguished PATA tradition of full and frank debate on complete visitor economy issues” as part of its “mandate to be the voice of the travel industry in Asia Pacific.”

Further information is available on the PATA and PATA Thailand chapter websites.

Watch the debate in full:

Full text of Imtiaz Muqbil’s comments:

Is Thai culture good or bad for the development of Thailand’s Tourism Industries?

This topic is beyond debate because the word ‘culture’ defies definition. What exactly is Thai culture? Hmong culture of North Thailand, the Islamic culture of South Thailand? The Khmer civilisations of Northeast Thailand? The Thai-Chinese culture. The Thai-Indian culture? Or all of the above?

If you cannot precisely define it, it cannot be measured. Nor can it be evaluated. It can, however, be studied and discussed, and today is a very important first step. In fact, this event reflects an important change in the very culture of PATA, which I have played a major role in facilitationg.

When I debated Martin Craigs at the first such debate, dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila”, he won the battle but I won the war. I have long advocated culture of free and open debate in the industry and for equal space to be given to its NGO watchdog groups and critics. Mr. Craigs was the first to action it, and now Khun Bert has advanced it. As it gains traction, free and open debate will change the long-standing culture of industry conferences and create a pro and con, check and balance structure that will prove very healthy in future.

The most important win-win outcome of this debate will be to encourage further debate. It is indeed a very valid subject, especially in view of the winds of change blowing through Thailand, ASEAN and Asia at large. But I will not belittle its significance by attempting a value judgement in 10 minutes. I can, however, leave you with a series of questions to ponder.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Culture is like an ecosystem – a usually harmonious and sometimes predatory rainforest of trees, vegetation, wildlife, birds and marine life. Culture and nature are the two legs on which the entire travel & tourism industry stands.

All countries take great pride in their cultures, both internally and as an “export.” The Alliance Francaise, British Council, Goethe Institute were set up to do just that. Today, both India and China are following suit as the Indian Cultural Centres and Confucius Institutes expand worldwide.

Cultures have been changing since time immemorial. Just look at the ways we dress, eat and talk. Sanskrit or Latin are no longer spoken as widely as they once were. In many parts of Asia, we still enjoy using our hands to eat. In the West, this is considered uncivilized. Indeed, all forms of communication and travel lead to changes in culture, for better and for worse. The internet and tourism industries are drivers of change. So are education and migration.

We in the travel & tourism industry, advertise culture and nature as saleable assets. The value we attribute to it is directly related to the amount of money we make out of it. Indeed, here is my first question for further debate: Are we are an industry of ingrates? If we take cultural assets given to us free by past generations and Mother Nature, and profit from selling them, do we do enough to protect them?

Here are five questions on the link between Thai culture and Thai travel & tourism. You decide which one is good or bad:

  1. Are the Thais as happy, easy going, smiling, friendly people as they used to be?
  2. How has the delicate and gracious cooling off tradition of Songkran changed from the sprinkling of a few light drops to an orgy of hose-pipes, buckets and water-guns?
  3. Is Thai culinary culture losing its “Thainess” due to its growing popularity?
  4. Tourists crave authentic experiences — but what exactly is an authentic experience?
  5. Buddhism, an exemplary way of life, is advertised as being intrinsic to Thai culture. Do visitors have good reason to be confused when they see some very unBuddhist characteristics such as nightlife and alcohol, that are also widely but erroneously considered to be a part of our culture?

There are however, many aspects of  Thai society and traditions that visitors admire: Respect for guests, teachers and elders; reverence for HM the King and royal family; the daily 6 pm national anthem and show of respect for the flag, the general politeness and grace. With the sole exception of Bhutan, I know of few other countries where such traditions exist.

But will they last the test of time? Global economies and societies are changing rapidly. One indicator is the increasing number of malls with their omnipresent brand-name icons of globalisation. I call it clonalisation, a culture of sameness. You can stand in the middle of Siam Square and you will not know which city you are in.

Let me broaden the scope of this very thought-provoking topic and take you beyond Thailand to ASEAN and Asia.

You all know about an ASEAN Economic Community but how many of you know about an equally important document called the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Blueprint that is designed to promote ASEAN Cultural Integration and an ASEAN identity?

How can the people of ASEAN integrate if we know nothing about our culture, history and heritage? For example, Our cuisine is an intrinsic part of our culture. Thai restaurants abound throughout ASEAN but here in Bangkok, one is hard pressed to find a good choice of Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino, Burmese or Vietnamese restaurants. Why?

In the post-2015 integration period, more than half of the 600 million people of ASEAN will be Muslims. What do we know or understand about Islamic culture?

Some of the best coffee in the world is grown in Laos, Northern Thailand and Vietnam. But the global coffee culture is dominated by Starbucks. Why is it not possible to create an ASEAN coffee brand and give the big boys a run for their money, like AirAsia? How many hoteliers serve hilltribes coffee in your restaurants and rooms?

And one final important question beyond ASEAN, of relevance to the emerging Asian century.

Asia’s best travel & tourism asset is its cultural, social, religious ethnic diversity. But this asset is also potentially its biggest geopolitical liability. If environmental issues are leading to climate change and global warming, cultural clashes will lead to regime change and what I call “the other global warming.” What can Asia-Pacific travel & tourism industry to prevent that?

History has shown that the best, most stable, progressive and peaceful societies are those which allow multi-culturalism to flourish in a way that unleashes human creativity and harness its power to do good — the Mughal Emperor Akbar in India is an example.

New York is one of the most culturally vibrant places in the world.  angkok is heading in that direction. Walk through any Thai tourist spot around Christmas/New Year time, and the babble of languages you hear is mind-boggling.


Let me end with two examples of how integrated cultures can produce some wonderful blends:

Thailand’s most famous cloth is silk. The best-known Thai silk products bear the brand name of a missing American named Jim Thompson.

One of my best friends in this wonderful industry was the late Roberto Jotikasathira, the hybrid son of an Italian mother and an aristocratic Thai diplomat father. One of the most decent, honest, sincere and dedicated people I have ever known. May God rest his soul in peace.

As I said at the beginning, to offer a good or bad value judgment in 10 minutes would be to belittle a very valid and serious issue. The best way to address the deeply complex role of culture in evolving societies and the prevailing winds of change is to encourage further debate. In fact, every PATA chapter should create a regular forum to debate whatever issues they see fit. One topic I can offer you now: Is medical tourism driving up health costs for ordinary people?

My warmest personal thanks to all of you for coming here today, and to Khun Bert for advancing this culture of debate. As they say in Sanskrit, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Triumphs).