Time to rethink tourism in Thailand?

Robert Horn's picture

THAILAND is approaching capacity in terms of how many visitors it can handle. A rethink may be needed as the Government promotes Thailand 4.0 . . .

BANGKOK - In early July, while the world focussed on a dangerous and dramatic effort to rescue 13 young football players trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand, a tragedy was unfolding further south with the potential to inflict some serious economic damage on Thailand’s economy and reputation.

On July 5, two boats carrying 130 tourists capsized in stormy seas off the popular resort island of Phuket. Forty-seven tourists, all from China, perished.

While the disaster received little media attention globally, it was big news in China, where tour operators began cancelling bookings to Thailand as outraged and nervous Chinese citizens changed their minds about traveling to a country that ranked second among their preferred holiday destinations.

Tourism is an essential source of revenue for Thailand.

In 2017, it directly accounted for about 9.4 per cent of gross domestic product, or US$42.2 billion, and indirectly about 21 per cent, or US$95 billion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Thailand welcomed over 35 million tourists last year, and more than 9.8 million of them came from China. But within a month of the ferry disaster, over 600,000 Chinese tourists had cancelled their trips to the Kingdom.

Alarm bells have begun ringing in Thailand.

Can the country’s tourism industry recover from the fallout of the Phuket boat tragedy? Is the Kingdom truly less safe than other comparable destinations in the region?

And if tourism takes a prolonged hit, how will that affect the overall economy, which has finally been showing solid growth over the last 18 months following a period of zero growth four years ago?

Kudos should be given to Tourism Minister Weekrasak Kowsurat.

Rather than issue hollow assurances that the Kingdom is a paragon of safety, he acknowledged mistakes, accepting responsibility and looking for concrete steps to take.

He urged Government agencies to begin solving a series of safety-related problems if they wanted to see the country’s reputation restored and improve.

“If we become known as a country that does not compromise on safety, it will become another plus point for us to be recognised for not being “lax” in our standards,” Weerasak said.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha threw his support behind his Minister.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to adopt new standards,” he said. “We will learn in order to be consistent. It will allow us to ascend the steps of safety.”

In the wake of the boat sinking, the Government established a National Tourism Safety and Security Committee to oversee safety measures concerning tourism. How much power or what teeth that committee will have is an open question, but it could be a start in raising standards.

In truth, Thailand’s safety standards and records are not dissimilar to other countries in the region that are popular with tourists, including the Philippines and Indonesia.

That’s not the perception, however, at the moment, and perceptions are crucial in the branding and marketing of tourism.

The harsher truth is that Thailand does indeed have a safety problem. Not just for tourists, but for everyone.

Few statistics illustrate this more clearly than the fact that the Kingdom is regularly ranked among the countries with the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Aside from daily carnage, it seems every few weeks that a tour bus overturns and kills people.

“Deaths from carelessness, like the 47 killed in the recent boat tragedy in Phuket, hit the headlines because [it was] so many at one time, said Christopher Bruton of Bangkok-based Dataconsult Group, a research and advisory firm.

“But accidents on the water or on the roads are commonplace here. Our rail accidents are apparently at world record levels.’’

While there hasn’t been a major air accident in two decades, four Thai budget carriers are ranked near the bottom in safety by Airlineratings.com, an industry website.

Even worse, in 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organisation issued a red flag for the country’s entire aviation sector because the Government’s oversight, regulatory and inspection agency had not received an increase in funding or staff in nearly two decades — despite a massive rise in the numbers of airlines and flights.

The red flag was lifted in late 2017.

Then there are the scams, druggings and robberies, assaults and murders of tourists. One island has had so many tourist murders and mysterious deaths that it is nicknamed “Death Island” on some travel blogs and websites.

If the number of incidents appears to be high, one reason is that Thailand attracts far more visitors than other countries in the region with similar safety issues.

“Fewer visitors means fewer predators,’’ Bruton said.

Indonesia’s airlines have an even worse reputation than Thailand’s, and the preponderance of guns in the Philippines should disturb any visitor.

The huge number of tourists – the government sets higher targets for arrivals ever year – is also becoming problematic.

Weerasak admits that the country is approaching capacity in terms of how many visitors it can handle, and Bloomberg has reported that the numbers are “stressing out” the country’s infrastructure facilities.

Thailand’s tourism industry has proved remarkably resilient, and it will undoubtedly recover from the boat tragedy in the near term.

Reassuring in terms of the economy, but in the medium- to longer-term the country needs to stop relentlessly raising targets for arrivals as a benchmark for success, and to adopt more sustainable approaches.

As the Government promotes Thailand 4.0, its 20-year national strategy to transform the economy and society into ones driven by innovation, research and development, and higher technologies, it would do well to scale back its reliance on growth in tourism for growth in the economy.

And if Thailand is to become the advanced nation envisioned in Thailand 4.0, great strides in safety need to be achieved in all aspects of life, not just in tourism.

In no advanced country is safety the shambles it is in Thailand and similar countries. That is, however, a longer-term endeavour that will involve education, changing mindsets and behaviuors, regulation and enforcement.

It remains to be seen whether Thailand is up for that challenge.

* Robert Horn is Bangkok correspondent for ATI.