TAT stands in the firing line
UK tour operator TUI’s decision to urgently evacuate its guests from Thailand, late last week, shocked travel agency executives. One said it was a worst-case scenario, a nightmare that we all hoped would never happen.
Yet it has been heading that way for weeks, a slow but steady decline on a path of confusion and chaos that can only lead to financial ruin for players in the tourism industry.
We should have seen the writing on the wall and recognised the failure of tired excuses that claimed “tourists are not a target” and the areas they visit “are not in the path of destruction,” for what they were; just smoke and mirrors. We were, in fact, fooling ourselves that there was nothing amiss in the Land of Smiles. The signs were evident a good six months before the 2006 military coup and Thai post World War II history teaches us there has never been a peaceful non-violent demonstration of the people whatever the cause or justification. After 18 failed constitutions and as many military coups led by a succession of corrupt politicians we have to admit that chaos is a way of life with a few interludes of calm, just enough for us to get our breath.
Yet we must also recognise that TUI’s decision and use of vocabulary, was a gross over reaction. It announced an“evacuation” in its communiqué to the travel industry in Thailand an exaggeration indeed, considering its clients were free to make a choice.
Customers had the right to decide whether they wished to transfer from Bangkok to complete their holiday in Phuket or take the option of flying home. In TUI terminology that was an “evacuation.”
But there was a legion of travel advisories categorically telling citizens to avoid Thailand, except for essential travel. That should be enough for the most optimistic travel executive to recognise the perception of Thailand as a safe, premier destination to enjoy unrivalled hospitality has been ruined by a vicious cycle of political chaos that has engulfed the capital and stiffled the economy since the military coup of 2006.
Whether it is the sins of military leaders, the yellow shirts or the red shirts there has never been a day of reckoning when those who were sinned against could seek retribution and more practically compensation to pick up the pieces and recover. In this case we have to ask why the “yellow shirts,” two years after their devastating action against the airport and tourism across the country, have not been prosecuted in a court of law both criminal and civil.
Tourism and commerce are easy targets for urban protesters who wreck havoc and financial ruin at will. They have since November 2008 inflicted billions of dollars of damage on the economy and should be held accountable, whatever the colour of their shirts, for the dreadful loss of employment suffered by Thai people who work in or close to tourism.
The government has to demonstrate to its citizens and investors, worldwide, that the rule of law applies in this country. Legitimate protests are protected by the constitution, but it has been wrongly interpreted since 2008 to include the right to close public highways, airports and commercial districts while infringing on the rights of others.
Today, is reality check. Highly reputable travel firms that have been sending tourists for more than three decades are stepping back and re-evaluating. It means that even the most optimistic travel executives know their business will be in the doldrums for six months at the least.
Tourism executives should adopt a calm and steady approach to the substantial challenges we face to build recovery. Tourism will recover once we have the fundamentals right. They will not be right by simply advertising and spinning half truths.
Thailand is politically in a quagmire and unstable. Yet, given time it will work its way out of crisis. Overseas tour operators must recognise that Thailand is not a a fairy tale “wonderland.” There are security risks, soaring crime rate, an unsettled deep-south and all the rip offs ever designed to trip up a tourist. But if we could ensure tourists are welcome and as safe here as thery are in Singapore, Hong Kong or Japan then we would be fine. We would be seen to be managing the risks in a professional manner. Right now we are not. We exposing visitors to uncertainties that are clearly spelt out in travel advisories.
We should not expect the Tourism Authority of Thailand with its limited marketing expertise and its track record for ignoring private sector recommendations to wave a magic wand and wish all the tourists back to rescue 2010 arrivals.
Better to recognise that we need to rebuild the essentials rather than promoting or relying on a myth.
Unfortunately, the only solution the TAT has in its bag of tricks is to throw advertising money at the media to see what sticks. Once the throwing is over it pleads for more hand-outs from the government. The industry looks on and wonders if this 50-year agency is living in fantasy land with no management controls to check if the vast spending actually worked a miracle or not.
We would recommend that TAT stop and think what it has really achieved in 50 years of marketing. It has built an expensive overseas offices network that its directors view as a perk to crown their careers in government service.
Then there is the advertising in “buddy” media outlets and the allegations of corruption, one confirmed by the US federal court ruling on TAT’s former film festival investment. TAT was actually the injured party, but has so far failed to take any action in civil courts to recoup the loss.
Such scandals should not be swept under the carpet. TAT needs to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and good governance to rebuild confidence in its management.
It needs also to rethink how it works with private sector associations and how it selects board members. Private travel representatives should make up at least half of the board of TAT to enable it to function with a practical application that is relevant to the industry
The tourism industry needs to make its voice heard beyond the colours of politics. It should be a united voice that calls for calm and most of all a call for to improve the quality and sustainability of the country travel products.
Rather than arguing about how many million tourists we will lose, or the cost in dollar revenue, the industry needs leadership to work closely with airlines, hotels and all the travel associations in a united manner.
They need to develop a contingency plan of the kind that shifted into top gear after the tsunami hit South Thailand in 2000. The industry may need to lobby for changes to the constitution to end protests that cripple the capital’s ability to function. We might say it is none of our business. But that argument has worn thin after being mauled by the yellow shirts and now the red shirts in less than two years
Where do we go from here?
Develop a strategy that puts the well being of visitors first rather than tourist arrivals statistics. Drop the chase for arrivals and pursue a goal of quality.
Turn the emphasis back to developing hospitality through training and education. Raise the standard of living for everyone working in tourism, by creating educational opportunities. Thailand should be home to the world’s premier universities for tourism and hotel studies. Tour guides should be trained, re-trained and challenged to raise the knowledge bar through financial incentives rather than be treated as contracted labour or even worse freelance minders.
Most of TAT’s budget should be spent on education, supporting sustainable tourism, community-based projects and building skills in the aviation, hotels and tour service categories.
As for marketing budgets, TAT should support private sector strategy not invent its own that has no bearing on reality and is not subject to performance and or value audits.
The benchmarks for assessing the value of TAT’s investment in global media and marketing campaigns, including trade and road shows, are not in place. They should be and constantly monitored by a private/public committee.
TAT needs to recognise it is here to serve and support tourism at all levels. Instead of treating the private sector like a poor relative, or simpleton, it should recognise the value of its business partners and the need to listen to the voice of representative associations. Get that sorted and TAT might still be around for its centennial and hopefully with a few more people saying it was worth the investment.