Thailand’s retail queen Supaluck Umpujh dispensed “talking sweet” and told bold truths about how the destination is selling itself short, and lacking in courage and foresight to build new tourist attractions at a tourism forum Monday.

The chairwoman of The Mall Group, which owns Bangkok luxury malls such as The Emporium, EmQuartier and Siam Paragon, treated the media to a 30-minute diatribe at a press conference held in conjunction with the Thailand Tourism Forum 2019 in Bangkok.

A no-holds barred Umpujh took shots at how Thailand is attracting millions of arrivals (40 million is forecast for 2019) yet she claimed “the revenue is nothing.” She said Thailand’s entertainment is associated with massage parlors and seedy streets rather than world-class facilities; and argued that curfews forcing venues to close at midnight are making other Southeast Asian countries more attractive to Europeans.

Umpujh said this is why she wants to help change Thailand to become the “hub of entertainment” and “playground of Asia.” The group announced a partnership in September with Los Angeles-based AEG, which bills itself the world’s leading sports and live entertainment company.

The tie-up involves building an iconic new retail and entertainment district, EmLive, at the EmSphere, and The Bangkok Arena at the Bangkok Mall, which will enable the city to host large-scale events including concerts, live performances, family shows, sports competitions and conventions. The former can take in over 6,000 people and the latter, up to 16,000.

Construction has started and the venues are expected to open by the fourth quarter of 2022.

Just telling the truth

No doubt, the feisty chairwoman, who has lived through the 1997 financial crisis and the 2014 military coup yet kept opening luxury malls, meant well. Her task was to discuss how retail, entertainment, and hospitality could converge to create better tourism experiences.

Besides, a lot of what she said isn’t new to Thai tourism players, although most whisper it in private rather than blast it out publicly.

“The revenue that comes to the country is very low,” Umpujh said. “I just talked to the government. People buy cameras in Singapore, but take photos in our country. They dive here…our corals and mangroves are gone. We lose our resources.

“The hotel rate is still the cheapest in the world. We have the best service, convention [venues], food, room, everything is the best. Why so cheap?” said Umpujh.

Several times she mentioned how Vietnam has become “super strong,” with authentic offerings, better nightclubs and bars whereas “Phuket’s Patong — my god, they don’t even invest in anything…I don’t want to talk about it, you know what I mean,” alluding to Patong’s go-go-bars.

“I remember Thailand was so good in entertainment. When Singapore wanted to open a nightclub, they had to get dancers from Thailand, because they don’t know how to dance. Now, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are open even at 5 a.m. No wonder Europeans don’t come. They want to have fun but it’s closed after 2 a.m.

“Human beings want fun too, not just culture,” she said.

Added Umpujh, “Malaysia has Legoland, Singapore has Sentosa, Gardens by the Bay, [Jurong] Bird Park, what do we have? Phuket Fantasea? How many years have they been there?

“This is what the government needs to understand. Give [incentives] to support investors. A lot want to invest because we are the number one in the world and we have so much variety,” referring to MasterCard’s study that Bangkok is the world’s top city destination, for the third consecutive year in 2018.

If Thailand does not add new attractions, or find ways to get people to stay longer and spend more, “someone else will take over.”

“Vietnam will go so fast,” she said.

“I talked to Alibaba. They said, I’m sorry for Thailand. [Arrivals] in Vietnam are going up 50 percent, Thailand 10 percent. What happened to your country? Why don’t you talk to your government?

Investors need courage, Umpujh said.

“I’m honored to be here to talk, but I’m not talking sweet. I’m not a retailer but a doctor trying to analyze what is the problem. We need to have the courage of the government and investors to help Thailand achieve its opportunity — best geography, shopping paradise, world-class entertainment, diverse attractions.”

Beyond adding hotels and malls

Umpujh said luxury retail needs tourism, and vice versa, adding it does increase tourist spending. However, malls have to offer much more than shops, she said, pointing to the Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World at her Siam Paragon, one of the largest aquariums in Southeast Asia, which also offers a range of special activities, as an example.

Umpujh imagines her $315 million joint venture with AEG will bring to Thailand world-class artists such as Celine Dion and Kate Perry, with the arenas opening up two whole new retail and entertainment districts in the Bangna area.

AEG is co-owner and operator of both venues, and will collaborate with The Mall Group in offering and marketing a wide range of events.

In a statement, Adam Wilkes, president and CEO of AEG Asia, said, “These two significant developments will be a game-changer, giving Bangkok and Thailand the opportunity to become the most important retail and entertainment hub in Southeast Asia.”

Why it’s important now

With Thailand going from 35 million arrivals in 2018 to 40 million this year, the question, ‘Is it on the right path?’ becomes more critical, said co-organizer Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks.

“The experience is no longer just a hotel, but tourism. Consumers want to get out of their hotel and they’ve got this [pointing to his mobile].

“We shouldn’t be afraid of mass tourism and build walls. Mass tourists become niche travelers and FITs [Free independent Travelers]. Someday they will become better tourists, it’s happened before. So we must be prepared to offer more diverse, international best in class facilities and tourism attractions,” said Barnett.

Rather than just build more rooms, chains could get into the act of attractions’ creation, said Intercontinental Hotels Group’s managing director Southeast Asia and Korea, Clarence Tan. He gave the example of the Holiday Inn Resort in Hua Hin, which is connected to Vana Nava, a waterpark with 19 rides and slides. The hotel offers free access to guests to the waterpark, which has attracted more than one million visitors in four years of operation.

But what Thailand needs fundamentally is “long range vision,” something Singapore does really well, said Rahul Mittal, director of Cistri, an urban development consulting company.

“Singapore is always looking at the next 50 years. Market conditions may change or there may be disasters, but they always have that [vision] and work towards that,” he said.

“Secondly, think of land uses and transportation. In a lot of countries, they work separately. Transport has a larger budget than planning, they build roads to ease congestion, but sometimes what they build do not jive with the land use.”

What’s the point of having attractions if they aren’t accessible, Umpujh agreed.

The retail queen, however, is optimistic her new entertainment attraction will be a game-changer.

“After all, my name is Supaluck,” which sounds like super luck.

Photo Credit: Night market in Bangkok. Culture is good, but more attractions would be great. aotaro / Flickr