It was recently stated that Thailand hopes to attract 50 million
tourists a year by 2030.
With recent figures coming out of the kingdom that there are currently
just shy of 35 million visitors per annum that would represent an
increase of almost half over the next dozen years or so.
Indeed there would almost be as many visitors to Thailand as there are
The question is whether the infrastructure of the country can cope and
what needs to be done so that visitors are not just treated as cash
cows to be herded around in sub-standard transport to non-existent or
poor quality accommodation.
The country needs to think about its future and plan appropriately.
Tourism and Sports minister Kobkarn Vattanavarangul talks a good game
and if the figures are to be believed she is presiding over a golden
era for the country’s tourism sector that this week was said to be 18%
of total GDP.
The former CEO of Toshiba has managed to ride out the storm of the hit
taken to Chinese tourism by ridding the country of the so called
zero-dollar tours that were lining the pockets of a few but leaving
state coffers largely empty for a large proportion of the tourism
market. Chinese alone are meant to make up 28% of total arrivals.
But is the elegant and doubtless able minister really able to grasp
the consequences of what 50% more visitors would entail. And are there
contingencies in place to switch track should tourism dynamics change
over the next 13 years as they are so likely to do?
In an interview with Bloomberg this week Khun Kobkarn gave us some
nice sound bites – like saying that Aussie tourists were the kind she
wanted. She was referring to their spending power as well as the
likelihood that they would stay for a reasonable length of time.
According to the stats Australians spent 5,800 baht a day and stay for
14 days on average. Brits stayed longer but spent around 20% less.
Certainly some infrastructure projects are now in full swing to cope
with the anticipated influx in the future. There is a massive
expansion of Suvarnabhumi airport underway that should help to
increase capacity. A large number of immigration facilities are being
added but it remains to be seen as to whether these will prove
sufficient or we see the same old problems of queues and frustration
stacking up for years.
Don Muang airport is now not just a domestic flight hub but one with
an increasing number of international flights. Only this week Nok Air
said they were planning to tone down their domestic networks to add up
to twenty routes from Don Muang, Phuket and Chiang Mai internationally
to China and even Japan.
These are positive signs in getting the tourists here – but then what.
It could be twenty years or more before Thailand has a half decent
inter-city rail network. And even then the routes will hardly be
extensive even if all planned projects come to fruition. Having a
high speed train to Korat is one thing – but who will actually want to
go there? Did anyone think about that?
At the moment despite the addition of some new rolling stock the State
Railways, for all their quaint olde worlde charm are really just that
– an out of date anachronism. The kind of spending required to give
the country a half decent rail network would take political will and
incredible investment and planning lasting for fifty years.
And the country’s bus networks are plagued by problems. Not least of
these is the now internationally accepted and understood idea that
Thailand roads are patently dangerous. No one can deny that Thailand
is number two on the list of per capita road deaths. In fact the
authorities make no attempt to hide it.
It is unrealistic to expect tourists to risk their lives on holiday.
The state of the roads is not a tourism problem per se but is still
one that could have a dramatic impact on the ability of the country to
move its tourists around. There are also many other issues of safety
that need to be addressed.
The budget domestic airways are one success story for the kingdom but
Nok Air’s insistence on concentrating on international routes may be
misguided. While the capacity of existing airports may not be enough
to take all the people who in many transport friendly countries would
get about by road and rail.
The tourism minister sees clearly that a different breed of tourist is
needed in the future but there is no certainty that her ideas are
right or that there is the political will to put them into practice.
Most worrying seems to be the lack of contingency for unforeseen
circumstances. Thailand still has what might be termed a knee-jerk
reaction to problems rather than long term planning.
Khun Kobkarn has spoken about the rebranding of Pattaya, the focus on
medical and sports tourism; in fact everything from large projects
down to silly gimmicks that are just fads like Pokemon. The large
scale issues are not really her brief. While she must play a part
there are bigger issues at stake so perhaps her portfolio either needs
to be expanded or other governmental departments need to be given more
say and more clout in determining the tourism future of the kingdom.
And those bigger issues go right to the top. While many have been
impressed by the military government’s ability to get large
infrastructure projects off the ground many of these are really
designed for those who live and work in Thailand rather than tourists.
An example of this is the expansion of the Skytrain and MRT projects
going on all over the city of Bangkok. While tourists would doubtless
benefit to a degree it is not really aimed at them; are they likely to
be interested in being able to get to Bang Bua Thong on the Purple
Line? No, that is for the locals and their convenience in living and
working in the capital.
Another very important factor in being able to handle 50 million
tourists a year are the hotels. Yes, they continue to be built – just
this week plans were announced to turn the Queen Sirikit Convention
Centre into one vast hotel with parking for 3,000 cars (do tourists
need a car park?) and the former Customs House on the Chao Praya is
slated to be a luxury hotel in the near future.
The need for accommodation is paramount but whereas for a few months
of the year there is full occupancy in many hotels and resorts, what
of the rest of the year. Thailand is still subject to a massive influx
of visitors during November to March with a massive downturn at other
Would the authorities not be better served by coming up with deals and
packages to encourage visits at other times of the year to spread the
load and make investment in the tourism sector a more viable
Another alarming issue, and one that Khun Kobkarn barely touched on in
her Bloomberg interview, is the strength of the baht. Of course the
minister is hardly to blame for the vagaries of the exchange rate but
with the baht trading to only 43 to a pound, and 38 to a Euro the
country will find it increasingly difficult to give the kind of
spending power that emerging markets like Vietnam can offer to the
And it is not just the exchange rate. Prices in Thailand are spiraling
for all manner of goods and the tourism sector is no exception.
Today’s tourist – and those of the next dozen years – are tech savvy
and smart. They are able to see clearly and quickly exactly how much
their trip will cost, what awaits them in Thailand and the value they
will get for their buck. Tourism these days is easy to plan and it is
just as easy to compare markets. It is not like the old days when you
had a guidebook and things were largely hit and miss for many people.
Most everyone is computer savvy and there are few surprises anymore.
Many Thai authorities mistakenly believe that all they have to do is
get the tourists into Thailand then they can do what they like with
them. People are not stupid – online forums abound and the exchange of
information is quick and dynamic creating an ever increasing
competition with other countries.
Also a great bugbear for many is the issue of visas. Khun Kobkarn has
tried some waiving of fees and in her latest efforts made it easier
for those seeking medical treatment or long stays in the kingdom.
But these are not directed at most tourists. Surely the time has come
to relax all the restrictions and welcome people of most nationalities
for a month without charge. There seems to be few studies ever
announced that address the issue; would it not be helpful to conduct
online surveys to find out what people really want rather than
deciding what is good for them without asking your customer in the
For many years Thailand has been resting on its laurels in the jewels
that make it a world class tourist destination. We all know what they
are – the beaches, the nature, the temples, the food, the nighttime
entertainment, the smiles etc., etc. And those jewels are based in
places as familiar to people in Europe as they are to people living in
Thailand – Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, Samui, Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
For a country so big there really is an awful lot that is unvisited.
Maybe the time has come to make a concerted effort to think about the
future and develop some new places that could give a lift to tourism
in 2030 and beyond. For let’s face it, today’s tourist will be similar
to tomorrow’s in one essential regard – they will want to explore
places that other people have not seen, enjoy experiences that others
have yet to see.
Places like Isaan, with their rich cultural heritage are still tourism
wastelands that with some forethought could help to take up the slack
of those 15 million extra visitors. And what about the beaches of the
south in Nakorn Sri Thammarat or Chumporn – or any other off the
beaten track places that could so easily be developed that would not
even need to reinvent the tourism wheel.
Thailand has its work cut out to keep up with the times and maintain
its position as one of the world’s foremost tourism destinations. To
do so the country will need its young and its entrepreneurs to step
forward as the last thing it needs is to simply rest on those laurels
and look to the past and expect that more of the same will yield the