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23 Apr, 2024

Celebrating my ouster from the PATA Thailand Chapter Executive Committee

Bangkok — On 22 April 2024, I was ousted from the PATA Thailand Executive Committee by a vote of 6:5 with one abstention.

A paper-thin margin but enough to complete the well-orchestrated job. I was the only nominee voted out. All the others sailed through with unanimous votes.

In the spirit of turning the negative into a positive, I am sharing some thoughts on my two-year term, which I hope will benefit the PATA and the Asia-Pacific tourism industry, especially as the PATA Annual Summit and AGM are coming up in May 2024.

In early 2022, the PATA Thailand chapter chairperson, Mrs Ben Montgomery, a truly warm-hearted, sincere, well-meaning personality, invited to me to serve on the ExCom. The mandate she gave me was to help popularise Thailand’s rich tourism history, for which she has high personal regard and respect.

She was so keen to have me onboard that she convinced the committee to pay my PATA membership dues, and be an appointed member, bypassing the electoral process.

I was happy to join, but on the condition that I would like to see issues dealt with honestly and frankly, not be swept under the carpet. My history lectures, too, would not be sanitised versions but present the facts, warts and all.

She agreed but requested that I should maintain a constructive approach. For sure, I responded. Learning the lessons of history is by its very nature a constructive attitude.

I fulfilled our agreed mandate to the hilt.

I gave a number of lectures on Visit Thailand Year 1987, the Risks and Threats facing Thai tourism, a history of the Thai MiCE sector, and Thailand as the world’s first Alliance of Civilisations destination. A special lecture was given on International Women’s Day 2023 to pay tribute to “30 Thai Women Who Put Thai Tourism on the Global Map”.

All were very well received. The online lecture on VTY 1987 generated the best turnout at a PATA webinar since Covid.

I also spoke my mind, repeatedly calling for mainstreaming of topics outside the traditional comfort zones.

This line of argument met internal resistance but was slowly beginning to resonate.

In February 2024, Mrs Montgomery asked me to serve on the committee for another two-year term, this time via an electoral process, and handle the PR responsibility. I was ready for the challenge, with some well-researched ideas to raise the PATA profile and expand the narrative of a country I call The Greatest Story in Global Tourism HiSTORY.

But I noted a mood change after my 03 April 2024 article calling for a change in the chairmanship of PATA, the mothership.

I sensed the coolness setting in, and had a pretty good idea what was going to happen.

Sure enough, on 22 April 2024, it did.

On 23 April, I asked Mrs Montgomery if she knew in advance that the vote was being engineered. She dodged the question, insisting only that the vote was anonymously conducted. In her comments during the meeting itself, she repeated the word “transparency” several times.

No matter. I accept the result. It is a normal part of the democratic process, what elections are all about.

Having said that, here are a few hindsights which I think may prove to be useful to fine-tune the foresights at the PATA AGM in May.

(+) Although there is much focus on the young generation, the PATA hierarchy is still heavily under the influence of the old guard. These senior citizens have been around for decades and still sit on the various committees. As many have been conferred life membership, they do not have stand for election and get open access to the board meetings, even if their companies or organisations are not dues-paying members. A close study of the minutes of past board and committee meetings will show whether they contribute anything of much value. Indeed, an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of membership demographics is long overdue.

(+) In 1994, PATA had a membership of 16,000 chapter members, 2,000 industry and associate members and 87 national, provincial and city governments. It was the world’s pre-eminent travel grouping, well ahead of both the World Travel & Tourism Council (which had only just been founded in 1990), and what was formerly known as the UN World Tourism Organisation, then undergoing a heavy-duty revamp under the late Secretary-General Antonio Enríquez Savignac.

Today, 30 years later, PATA is a shadow of its former self. It moved to Thailand in 1998, not long after the 1997 Asian financial contagion and then got hit by a string of back-to-back crises starting with the 9/11 attacks in New York. Each crisis saw its numbers shrink. But those crises also contained many opportunities to make Travel & Tourism a part of the solution. PATA’s internal appraisals of its haemorrhaging focus mainly on external factors, never at its own decision-making failings. As PATA is still registered under U.S. law, a Freedom of Information filing should provide access to documents which will make it clear what went wrong. Many trails will lead back to those life members still doddering around.

(+) The world has changed, but the subject matter of PATA events has not kept pace. Travel & tourism forums worldwide sound and look alike. The upcoming PATA Annual Summit in Macau is no different — a look at the global scenario, followed by 90% Doing Business topics. The speakers line up does not include any social scientists, trades unionists, anthropologists, critical thinkers or civil society representatives to challenge conventional wisdoms or tell Travel & Tourism industry gurus where they are going wrong. Preaching to the converted creates echo chambers which diminish the value of the discourse.

(+) Tourism academics need to revamp and refocus their courses and curricula which are being rendered obsolete by the day. The PATA Thailand Chapter ExCom had several representatives from academia. I also had a chance to visit a number of their institutions. For the most part, I found their body of work still focussed on textbook theories, with zero interest in learning the lessons of history. They attended my lectures, took notes and photographed my slides. Not one invited me to lecture further at their institutions. I was given a number of reasons, e.g., 1) We have no budget; 2) There is too much bureaucratic paperwork involved; and 3) You don’t have a degree.

However, I got the distinct impression that my facts and insights, based on decades of personal hands-on journalism, transcended the textbook theories that formed the core of their own lectures. It also highlighted how past Thai tourism decision-makers had failed. That crossed their comfort zones.

So, all in all, my two-year stint on the PATA Thailand Chapter ExCom was a wonderful learning curve. It gave me some unique insights into what happens in these committees and the mindsets that prevail.

I clearly do not belong.

It was also very clear why travel industry associations are failing to keep up with the times, failing to reinvent their value propositions and failing their members. That has to change, and I will continue to raise my voice after independently renewing my PATA membership. I have seen PATA in its heydays and played a major role in bringing the PATA HQ to Bangkok. Those glory days can and must be revived..

I hope this commentary will lead to a positive and constructive outcome, even if it means bearing the short-term pain of some badly-needed surgery.

Here are two images of my last hurrah.