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4 Jun, 2014

11 Ways to Reboot and Reform Thai Tourism

Bangkok – The Thailand Travel Mart+ which opens today comes in the midst of a wider national transition which has seen the Thai tourism industry, the largest service industry, hit by its worst crises in decades. The upheaval is no act-of-God, but an entirely self-inflicted political catastrophe which disproves the current tourism slogan: “Amazing Thailand: It Begins with the People.” Originally designed to highlight the friendliness and hospitality of the Thai people, the tourism slogan has become an embarrassing contradiction in terms.

Which makes it all the more important to find ways to honour its original message.

The military leadership has promised to initiate a reform process to lay the foundations for a more stable, long-term future. That presents the travel & tourism industry with a golden opportunity to undertake some long-overdue internal reform, too. If the need of the hour is to convert a crisis into an opportunity, as frequently cited by Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Thawatchai Arunyik, the real opportunity lies in making Thai tourism a leading part of the reform process.

Reform will give the lucrative tourism industry a chance to also usher in a new era for global tourism. Last month, UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Mr. Taleb Rifai, addressing the apex world body’s regional meetings in Legaspi, the Philippines, called for a new global tourism order with a focus on sustainability and cultural preservation. Thailand is well placed to be the first to action that call. Now 54 years old, dating back to the 1960 formation of both the TAT and Thai Airways, the Thai tourism industry has outlived the old business model of creating growth, growth and more growth. It may have become too big to fail, but it has also become fat, not fit, and risks becoming a victim of its own success.

In plotting a course for the next 50 years, Thai tourism has to learn from past mistakes and adopt a more health-and-wellness tourism approach — holistic, realistic and preventive. The marketing era must be replaced by a management era. It now has to move beyond repetitive bragging about job creation and visitor expenditure and create new parameters of success. Just as old ways doing business are being jettisoned, a future path will require the industry to be completely restructured, re-engineered and revamped. Undertaking this exercise within the context of phenomenal, monumental changes sweeping across the world, Asia, ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion makes it doubly complicating. But the opportunity is now here, and must be seized.

Here are 11 recommendations to address the key challenges:

1.    Inventory everything. Take stock of the airports, airlines, highways, hotel rooms, tour operators, convention centres, attractions, marinas, restaurants, bars, massage parlours and more. Inventory everything. Then match it by calculating how much garbage the tourism industry generates, how much water it consumes. Measure its entire carbon footprint and ecological damage and weigh that against visitor expenditures. Then use that new balance sheet to do a complete SWOT analysis and forecasting model that will put economic gain on an equal footing with ecological impact.

2.    Institute visitor surveys. Nobody has ever heard the “voice” of visitors to the country. How do they really feel about their visit to Thailand? No such visitor satisfaction surveys are conducted regularly, if they are done at all. Yet, seeking customer feedback in a reliable, scientific measurable way is a routine business practise. Is there a fear that if they are done, the conclusions may fly in the face of conventional wisdoms and shatter some comfort zones?

3.    Plan for the post-UN Millennium Development Goals era: Next year will be when a new global agenda is unveiled for the post-2015 era. This presents huge opportunities to work with the many United Nations agencies in Thailand to measure the extent to which travel and tourism has met the Millennium Development Goals. Travel & tourism is a major employer of women, contributes to education, cultural and social preservation. No other industry creates as many jobs for artists, musicians, dancers and sculptors.

4.    Broaden the definition of ASEAN integration: In 2015, ASEAN integration will breed a whole set of new challenges – cultural, economic, social and professional. The many lectures I have heard on the subject have focussed largely on economic issues, downplaying the potential sociocultural, geopolitical and ethnic threats.  The industry ignores these threats at its peril.

5.    Revamp the legal and regulatory regimes: Zoning laws are sorely in need of proper enforcement mechanisms. In the accommodation sector, a huge proliferation of inns, lodges and other units masquerading as “hotels” has triggered complaints because they operate outside the proper licensing structures. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Many other outdated laws and regulations need to be overhauled. And those which exist need to be enforced.

6.    Institute carry capacity controls: Many popular destinations are in a mess. Pattaya and Phuket now look almost identical in terms of overdevelopment. That was not supposed to have happened. Phuket was supposed to have learned from the mistakes of Pattaya. Did it?  Nationwide, there is a huge imbalance in capacity, with monumental peaks-and-troughs between overdevelopment and underdevelopment amongst and within destinations. This will have to be realigned covering all forms of travel & tourism products and services, including hotels, restaurants, shops, and bars.

7.    Upgrade human resources: When was the last nationwide survey done of industry working conditions and remuneration structures, especially amongst the rank-and-file? Middle and senior management executives enjoy good incomes but if the objective of travel and tourism is to benefit the grassroots level of society, it would be nice to see some reliable figures to verify it. Hotel room-maids in the provincial areas make less than 10,000 baht a month. Not everyone gets the service charge, especially in bad times.

8.    Review funding sources: Thailand prides itself on being a “value for money” destination. But in reality, how much does it cost to service a tourist, and provide him/her with the requisite infrastructure to have a nice holiday? The brunt of budgetary burden is borne by the Thai taxpayer. Is it time for a tourist tax to offset that? If every visitor pays simply one dollar per visit, that will mean US$26 million or about 50% of the TAT budget. Double that to two dollars, and the TAT’s entire marketing budget is taken care of. Two dollars per visitor per trip will have no impact on arrivals. The money can be used for funding many valuable travel & tourism projects, such as upgrading the quality of training programmes, Tourist Police, Tourist Courts and much more.

9.    Improve the security environment: Liberal visa and visa-on-arrival policies have played a major role in fuelling the tourism boom but need to be reviewed to ensure a better balance with national security. More ways need to be found to keep out paedophiles, organised crime gangsters, neo-Nazis, football hooligans and other undesirables of various societies from getting free and easy access to Thailand.

10.    Help the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, especially those owned and operated by Thais: Regional and global integration will mean an even greater influx of cash-rich foreign investors. That may be fine when times are generally good, but in bad times, xenophobia can rear its ugly head, especially if excessive competition from foreign-owned companies creates problems for locally-owned ones. The Thai economy must not become so dependent on multinationals and foreign investment that it loses control of its destiny and sovereignty.

11.    Make Buddhist philosophy and the Sufficiency Economy concept of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej the core concepts of everything the industry does: This will require a whole new set of criteria for measuring success. The military regime has mulled the possibility of a national happiness index. Travel & tourism industry can easily volunteer to become the first industry to “test-drive” this concept. Many other global indices are gaining ground, such as the Peace Index and the Better Life Index. All are applicable to travel & tourism in some shape or form.


The above suggestions are only a starting point for drafting a long-overdue industry master plan that can help travel & tourism be a part of the solution. Crafting one should no longer be the domain of the upper crust, high-income people of power, riches and influence. A pan-industry, sounding-board conference must be holistic and inclusive, with everyone getting a seat at the table, especially non-governmental organisations, trade unions, souvenir-shop owners, even taxi drivers and security guards. They all deserve to have a say, and exercise their right to be heard. That would make it the first conference of its kind in Asia. Over time, changes in tourism policies, strategies and directions will also lead to changes in the institutions that govern the industry.

Thailand’s unmatched geographical advantage at the crossroads of the world’s three most populous countries means that it will have no shortage of visitor numbers for years. The key will be managing those numbers. This will require jettisoning all the conventional past theories and charting a slow and steady future path based on moderation, balance and wisdom. Tourism must help make Thailand, the region and the world more peaceful and sustainable.

That, and only that, will be the real “Thainess.”