Casinos on the cards
BANGKOK, 6 February 2013: Thailand should legalise gaming, improve tourism infrastructure and go for quality travellers to meet the challenges of the ASEAN Economic Community due to be launched end of 2015.
Claiming the country was heading for its best year ever in tourism, experts presented their recommendations at a tourism industry forum organised by the American Chamber of Commerce late last week.
C9 Hotelworks managing director and Thailand Tourism Forum co-organiser, Bill Barnett, said over 60% of respondents at the event, who participated in the Thailand Tourism Index survey, believed legal casinos would be an important factor in Thailand remaining competitive.
The view is likely to upset a sector of the travel community keen to navigate Thailand to a culture and heritage tourism model rather the murky environment of casinos that are often linked to mafia-style crime and prostitution rings.
A split vote on the issue of legalising gaming came down in favour of allowing casinos by a factor of about 10%, which suggested forum delegates were far from certain about the benefits of allowing casinos.
More than 350 tourism industry movers and shakers attended the Thailand Tourism Forum voting on key issues facing the industry that set off alarm bells ringing about Thailand’s long-term competitiveness in the region.
“Thailand tourism needs to study very carefully the issue of gaming and other demand generators to attain sustained volume growth,” Mr Barnett said in a press release issued by his PR consultants Delivering Asia.
“There is a very real risk of us slipping behind places like Singapore and Macau in terms of visibility, branding and revenues. Thailand is also facing a glut of hotel rooms, so we need big draw cards like casinos as key drivers of demand.”
Thailand is surrounded by nations that have set up casinos, many of them just a few metres from the Thai border. Thailand and Brunei are the only ASEAN countries that have not legalised casinos.
The forum speakers concluded that more than 80% of survey voters agreed Thailand was staring down the barrel of an oversupply of rooms and that urgent action was required.
Among them were keynote speakers Dillip Rajakarier (Minor Hotel Group), Chanin Donavanik (Dusit Hotels and Resorts), Peter Henley (Onyx Hospitality and Hotels), Robert Hecker (Horwath HTL), Paul Logan (InterContinental Hotels Group), Jonas Ogren (STR Global), David Keen (Quo Global) and John Koldowski (PATA) .
Mr Barnett said: “Thailand Tourism Forum – 2013 is the country’s first report card on the state of the industry and an opportunity to look beyond the numbers at how tourism performance can affect a country’s entire economy.”
The Ministry of Tourism and Sports has set a target of 24.5 million international visitors in 2013, following a 15% increase from 2011 to 2012, which earned the country over Bt965 billion.
It confirms the ministry is committed to the numbers game, while the need to go for quality and sustainability will take the back seat.
Ministry data shows tourist arrivals increased 15% from last year and earned the country more than Bt965 billion (US$31.5 billion), a 24% rise from last year. The revenue assessments are made on a wide-sweeping estimate of spending per visitor.
Among the top the 10 source countries for international visitors, China leads the field, followed by Malaysia, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, Laos, Australia, the United Kingdom and Singapore.
Mr Barnett said mass tourism was the ‘elephant in the room: “As Wall Street learned, nothing grows forever. Thailand needs to learn the lessons of a volatile trading environment and focus on developing stronger infrastructure and perhaps temper growth targets and create more healthy segmentation than simply more, more, more.”
However, the recommendation to introduce gaming would fuel the mass tourism rather than aid the growth of what Mr Barnett called “quality tourism.”
Based on the comments and statements made from the floor and stage, the participants believed “quality tourism” was really high-revenue tourism.
The quality of a learning experience, cultural encounter, educational value and engagement with heritage and lifestyles appeared to fall outside the scope of the quality definition as viewed by forum experts.
Key issues identified at the forum:
• An overwhelmingly positive outlook for 2013, with international arrivals tipped to easily eclipse the record 22 million recorded for 2012
• Only a handful of industry figures were concerned about the high value of the baht
• Phuket was overwhelmingly the favoured location for hotel investment in 2012, more than twice as desirable as Bangkok or Pattaya, with Samui, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai stirring minimal interest with hotel developers and financiers
• Global trends were echoed in Thailand, with MICE, health and wellness and culture and heritage the strongest drivers of tourism demand with prospects for growth, rated far ahead of shopping, adventure travel, and theme parks
• A split vote on the issue of legalizing gaming came down in favour of allowing casinos by a factor of about 10%, suggesting voters preferred to sit on the wall.
• Industry leaders were unanimous that AEC 2015 would have a significant impact on tourism and travel in Thailand
Mr Barnett said the AEC was undoubtedly a ‘game-changer’, and would accelerate the impetus that had been building for a less divided ASEAN ever since the global financial crisis thrust Thailand and the region onto the world stage in 1997. “Regional travel has been a key tourism storyline over the past four years with sustained growth,” he said.
“The AEC will only create a stronger fundamental for this going forward. Boosted by rising low-cost airline carriers and a growing middle class, we expect this trend to dominate the market during this decade.”
The AEC comprises the economic integration of all 10 ASEAN member states by 2015, with the goals of creating a single market and production base.
Calls for legal casinos began in earnest last year, when CP Group boss and multi-billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont called for casino licences to be issues for Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya and warned Thailand was slipping behind regional rivals and allowing ‘underground businesses and dark powers’ to flourish by not taking control of the lucrative gaming sector.
Mr Barnett said more freedom of travel and likely single-issue visas for the entire AEC region also raised security issues for travellers and nations,but was not reason to be too pessimistic. “The Euro-zone has effectively handled this for an extended time and I believe with appropriate technology and increased cooperation between intelligence services and police in ASEAN that risk can be mitigated. Ultimately the benefits far outweigh the downside.”