BANGKOK, 4 December 2017: Thailand’s new Minister of Tourism and Sports, Weerasak Kowsurat, will have his work cut out for him, although he is no stranger to tourism, having served as its minister in 2008.
After a roller coaster ride spanning decades, due in part to fickle Thai politics, coups and demonstrations that curtailed growth, Thailand’s tourism is now enjoying an astounding recovery.
This year, international visits will exceed 32 million and there are reliable projections that estimate arrivals could easily exceed 35 million before 2020 dawns.
A Harvard Law School graduate Weerasak, who in more recent times has been involved in various community-linked projects, probably recognises that tourism tends to feed corporate and urban Thailand, at the expense of rural communities and villages where tourism assets thrive. They are expected to live off the rice husks of tourism, while corporate tourism thrives off the profits.
In the past, someone coined the phrase “slow tourism” to describe the demand for stress, free, wellness and chill-out travel experiences.
It is not talked about much these days except in the context of the vast retiree market.
For Thailand the term should refer to the urgent need to slow tourism. It is overheating, driven by greedy investors who gobble up land across the country and borrow to the hilt to build resorts, hotels and tourist attractions.
There are now frequent references to ‘over-tourism’ a phrase coined in Europe and encouraged by tourist congestion in popular destinations such as Barcelona.
There is a push back against the flood of tourists in major European destinations and probably the makings of one in Thailand especially at its overcrowded beach resorts.
“Over tourism” could be the phrase that will ultimately haunt Thailand’s newest minister as he takes over at a time when some of the essentials for secure and welcoming travel experiences have been eroded.
There are enough people in travel telling the minister to carry-on regardless, push the boundary, expand and capitalise on the nation’s popularity in global tourism.
The drive is for cash and that is erroneously called quality. The constant use of the word ‘quality tourist’ to refer to ‘cashed-up tourists’ is a deliberate confusion. Thailand’s tourism is not striving for quality, just more cash. Counting heads, or dollars, has not the slightest impact on the quality of the travel experience. As most surveys show the quality experience starts with the delivery of safety and security.
Travel trade associations preach money tourism. That’s their brief from their members; always present the business perspective and look after your trade members.
But the minister should also recognise that he represents a much wider constituency across all economic segments and within communities there are concerns that tourism is a runaway train.
The Ministry of Tourism and Sports has a responsibility to set out the frameworks, create a stable environment for tourism and ensure tourism players abide by the rules.
It has not performed well in areas of compliance linked to the Tourism Law. So many of the faults of tourism could be addressed if the ministry focused on compliance. Tourism companies that do comply are often the exceptions. They are disadvantaged. For everyone that pays tax, runs the company by the book, there are countless competitors who bend the rules and in the long-run damage the country’s reputation.