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24 Mar, 2015

Thai Tourism Minister listens carefully as PATA finds its “Voice”

Bangkok — The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) has long claimed to be the “voice” of the tourism industry in the world’s most populous and dynamic region. Over the last few years, failing to walk that talk has been a major contributor to its decline. Now, that is changing.

On 19 March, the PATA Thailand chapter became arguably the first to provide the Thai tourism industry with an opportunity to “voice” opinions on the content of Thailand’s next tourism master plan (2016-2020). The first time such a public forum had been held in Thailand, it gained even more credibility when the Minister of Tourism and Sports Mrs Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul sat through the day-long event, copiously jotting down the steady output of ideas in what appeared to be a personal diary. To have a Minister listen to the people’s “voice”, rather than disappear after making the perfunctory speech, was a coup indeed.

Thailand's Minister of Tourism and Sports Mrs Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul

Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports Mrs Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul

PATA CEO Mario Hardy also sat through the game changing event. About 200 representatives of various travel industry sectors, both Thais and expatriates, offered dozens of suggestions, most of them related to their individual business sectors. The result was a valuable collection of free research at far less cost than doing focus-groups or individual interviews. Most important, by being free and open to everyone, it gave the industry a very important participatory voice. It also outclassed another annual tourism seminar organised by the American Chamber of Commerce which largely reflects the views of a small group of expatriates trying to get the Thai government to further their business agendas.

The forum was initiated by Mr. Auggaphol Brickshawana, a recently retired executive of the Tourism Authority of Thailand who is now an advisor to the Minister of Tourism & Sports. He had attended an earlier Thailand Tourism Outlook organised by the PATA Thailand chapter on February 18, which turned out to be primarily a number-crunching exercise. Mr. Auggaphol felt it could be supplemented by more “qualitative” feedback. A follow-up event was suggested, which the Ministry would host. Mr. Auggaphol indicated that the Minister, one of Thailand’s better-known businesswomen and a keen listener, would attend. The fact that she did, and did so very attentively, was the ultimate prize.

The format, too, was perfect. A morning of speeches included one by the Minister herself, outlining key points of the upcoming draft tourism plan. Two senior representatives of the UN World Tourism Organisation, Mr. Xu Jing and Mr. John Kester, offered a global picture and some thoughts on Thai tourism. That was followed by an afternoon of “voices.” A panel of eight industry executives representing hotels, tour operators, the MICE sector, the media, and three from the airlines, were given a few minutes each, after which the session was thrown open to the floor. Needless to say, there was no shortage of comments. For those who did not want to publicly say anything, cards were given out for them to write it down.

The timing of the forum bolstered its importance. This is the first time in the history of Thai tourism that both the PATA Thailand chapter and the Ministry of Tourism are headed by women. Thailand has also just come out of a bad patch. After recording a high of 26.7 million visitors in 2013, Thai tourism slumped 6.6% to 24.7 million in 2014, thanks almost entirely to domestic political confrontations which precipitated the military takeover in May 2014.

The TAT’s marketing comeback plans went into overdrive almost right after the coup, generating an arrivals upturn in the last quarter of 2014. The latest promotional campaign “2015 Discover Thainess”, in full swing worldwide, has a 2015 target of 28 million visitors generating an estimated 1.35 trillion Baht (41 billion USD) from international visitors, and 151 million domestic trips generating an estimated 800 billion Baht (24.3 billion USD) from domestic tourism.

Well aware of their transitory status, the generals are trying to reform and rebuild the country’s institutions in preparation for an election next year. Given the coup’s impact on tourism and the importance of the industry in the nation rebuilding process, the Tourism Minister has no delusions about the task ahead. As a representative of an unelected government, she knows she has to work even harder to win public trust, and get a lot done in little time. She’s trying to do just that, which actually makes her far more effective than an elected politician.

Indeed, Thai tourism, like the country at large, is at a crucial juncture. On March 18, just the day before the forum, the Tourism Authority of Thailand marked its 55th anniversary. Clearly, this is now an industry in middle age, soon to approach old age. A lifestyle change is a necessity. The public comments reflected an unequivocal view that the 55-year drive to generate growth must now be balanced by a focus on managing it. Thai tourism needs to address many of the deficiencies in its regulatory structures, human resources, environmental protection issues, safety & security, consumer protection challenges, and much more.

The Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Dr. Suwat Sidthilaw said the Discover Thainess campaign is not just a tourism slogan but also designed to inculcate a sense of pride and self esteem amongst the public. He referred to it as the Thai DNA. The emerging era of the ASEAN community will also open up both opportunities and challenges. With the wider national reform process under way, he said, the thoughts and opinions offered during the forum will feed directly into the tourism development roadmap. Added Mrs. Ben Montgomery, Chairwoman of PATA Thailand Chapter, “This is your last chance to plug in with the tourism roadmap. So please use it.”

In her opening remarks, Mrs Kobkarn noted the Ministry’s own agenda was to promote transparency and reduce redundancy in its operations, step up collaboration with other ministries and do it all with a sense of urgency. The master plan now being finalised is designed to provide a roadmap not just for 2020 but beyond. Many challenges lie ahead, such as enhancing the role of tourism in addressing the rich-poor income gap, upgrading the quality of industry statistics and tackling the looming human resources shortage. The HR issue is critical; tourism has grown so fast that a lot of rank-and-file jobs are being performed by immigrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar.

She said Thai tourism needed a stronger focus towards “quality” with products that offered a high value-added factor. The numerical targets themselves were only a yardstick. “A lot of things we need to do well. In addition to knowing our customers, we also need to know ourselves.”

In her wrapup comments, she said, “I have learnt that we have so many things that we don’t know, that we don’t use, that we need to manage better.” In future, she said, partnership is the key, not only between public and private but with educational and international institutions. Definitely, His Majesty the King’s guidance on the Sufficiency Economy has an important role to play. She pledged to promote a better balance between the economy and community and the environment. At the same time, she said, the industry had to ask itself, whose responsibility should it be (to convert words into action?) “It should be all our responsibility. The balance that we have talked about, it starts with individuals. We all can make the change. We all can make a difference. It starts with the power of the individual.”

She added, “I am new to tourism, but I see that tourism not only brings about wealth and the distribution of income and builds the pride of the country, but most of all unity all in the whole world. Friendship can never be bought by money. Tourism is all about bringing people together. (She became emotional here.) That is why every morning I wake up with the strength to go on. We have definitely so many problems but if we look positive, think positive, we still have many good things and a lot we can achieve not just for the country but for the world. I don’t believe in good plans with no action. I believe in an ordinary plan but with action from the heart. By the year 2020, with all the contributions you have made, we will achieve it.”

She ended by recounting a very personal experience. She said she had gone to Bangkok airport to see off the mourning families of two young Britons murdered on a Thai beach last year. It was a very emotional moment. Amidst the tears, she said, one of the family members told her, “By the way, I love Thailand and we will be back.” The minister said she was overwhelmed. “That is why I believe in the goodness that we have. But we need to bring it up more. We shall be good hosts. The true DNA of Thailand is the Thai people. I hope the new generation will carry the path forward with their hearts.”

The highly successful forum now paves the way for PATA chapters worldwide to become similar platforms for the entire industry to “voice” their views and suggestions, in a balanced top-down cum bottom-up format that disrupts the silos of tour operators, hotels and airlines. The format saves taxpayers a lot of money, and makes the process uniquely representative, democratic and open. Like Mrs Kobkarn, the ministers then only have to devote their time to listen carefully, and act.


This was the programme of the PATA Thailand Chapter forum, March 18


1000     Greetings by Mrs. Ben Montgomery, Chairwoman of PATA Thailand Chapter

1005     Opening Remarks by Dr. Suwat Sidthilaw, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports

1015     Address of H.E. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Minister of Tourism and Sports of Thailand


1040: Global Tourism Trends and Forces Affecting the Competitiveness of the Destinations – John Kester, UNWTO

1055     The World’s Perception of Thailand As a Tourism Destination and Global Trends/Forces Affecting the Competitiveness of the Destination – Xu Jing, UNWTO

1110 – The Asia Pacific Perspective – Mario Hardy, PATA

1130 – The ASEAN Perspective and Regional Challenges – Prof. Dr. Walter Jamieson, College of Innovation, Thammasat University

1330     Greetings from the Tourism Council of Thailand – Addie Porntip Hirunkate


1330     Introduction to the Afternoon and Panel (Moderated by Dr. Jutamas Wisansing)


  • Bill Heinecke
  • Nino Jothikasthira
  • Sumate Sudasna
  • Brian Sinclair
  • Richard Brouwer
  • Imtiaz Muqbil
  • Patee Sarasin
  • Sarah Mathews


Within the framework of a public private partnership concept the suggested framework for the questions will be: transportation/access, visitor experience, visitor services, service delivery and branding and marketing.

1700     Parting Words from the Minister