Few would argue with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s formidable dexterity in marketing. The creator of “visit years” worldwide has never looked back since its roaring Visit Thailand Year in 1987. In its six decades of operation, TAT has seen Thailand rise as one of the world’s 10 most visited destinations, as cited by UN’s World Tourism Organization, with 38 million foreign arrivals spending $65 billion (two trillion baht) in 2018. TAT is eyeing 40 million foreign arrivals this year, although Kasikorn Research Center expects a lower number of international tourists than TAT in 2019, between 39 million and 39.8 million.
TAT is less celebrated, however, for sustainable development achievements through the decades. Popular beach destination Pattaya was a cesspool way before the Philippines closed Boracay for rehabilitation. Many of Thailand’s island jewels, such as Samui and Phuket, have been marred by ugly development, although this also has to do with corruption or lack of enforcement.
Turning 60 years old commonly plunges one into depression or self-examination. For TAT, it’s “a time for reflection,” says its Governor Yuthasak Supasorn in a statement, and the organization vows to make travel and tourism the kingdom’s “most economically promising, environmentally sustainable, and cultural vibrant sector in the years to come.”
TAT says it has set “clear directions” to move the industry out of mass tourism and toward responsible tourism with an emphasis on “revenue-generating quality tourists.”
It will “go high” by focusing on middle- to upper-income groups in specific quality markets and seek first-time visitors in new and existing markets with its Go New Customer initiative. It will also “go low” by managing seasonality and generating more demand in the low rainy season; “go local” in its development and marketing of new products such as homestays, walking streets, and local cuisines; and “go digital,” utilizing technology to reach customers.
Go or No-Go?
This isn’t the first time TAT has uttered the need to go for quality tourists, protect the environment, and ensure sustainable tourism businesses. Industry members interviewed, such as Pornthip Hirunkate, Thailand director of Destination Asia, noted it has taken some steps, for example, limiting the number of visitors to fragile habitats such as Maya Island; working closely with the Association of Thai Travel Agents to promote community-based tourism and sponsor FAM (familiarization) trips to rural areas; and launching a Responsible Thailand Awards to encourage nature and culture conservation.
But while industry players believe TAT is not merely paying lip service to responsible tourism, they aren’t confident Thailand can achieve quality tourism anytime soon.
Danai Wansom, president and CEO of Well Hotels & Resorts, points out a few current realities. “The increase of low-cost carriers and a reduction in first and business class seats to Thailand shows a trend that is in fact moving away from high-end travelers to the fast-growing middle-class travelers,” said Wansom.
The current strong baht also forces suppliers to lower prices in order to maintain the same amount in the traveler’s currency, he added.
Thai hotel rates are already one of the most competitively priced in the region.
TAT’s targets for its 60th anniversary year inadvertently shows it has not formulated a solid strategy to shift Thailand once and for all away from mass tourism. The authority is targeting 40 million foreign arrivals this year, spending $72 billion (2.2 trillion baht), or $1,800 per person. In 2020 it targets 42 million foreign arrivals spending $77 billion (2.4 billion baht), or $1,833 per person. That is hardly a real shift to quality tourism.
“TAT’s revenue growth target for 2020 will likely still be in the head count,” said Sumate Sudasna, managing director of CDM. “To tap more quality tourism, it will take a while longer — and some serious commitment from many parties.”
If TAT wants to grow with responsible tourism, it needs to look at its revenue increase target with a metric of doing it with a lower growth target of arrivals and an increase in overnights, said Eric Ricaute, founder and CEO of Greenview, a company that advises hospitality organizations on corporate responsibility and sustainable practices.
“They [TAT] also seem to be focused on promotion as the entire scope of activity, when responsible tourism involves much more work of controlling tourism flows and having specific programs to ensure socioeconomic benefits,” said Ricaute.
“On the other hand the regulatory bodies doing things like closing Maya Bay show the possibility for action when needed, and hopefully further and broader actions will come before it gets to that point.”
Destination Asia’s Hirunkate similarly hopes that TAT and the Thai government would be serious about carrying capacity and management before sites are damaged and destroyed by mass tourism.
It’s a challenge, said Laurent Kuenzle, CEO, Asian Trails. “There will always be first-time visitors to Thailand who want to see the main, crowded sites and how to support responsible tourism at these places will be a key challenge,” he said.
TAT deserves a huge birthday cake when it turns 60 next year. But there’s a lot to do after the party. A priority surely is adding new skills relating to sustainable development to lead Thailand tourism, which is on course to hit 65 million visitors 10 years from now.
Sixty-five million arrivals and responsible tourism seem like strange bedfellows. TAT’s biggest achievement yet will be to prove they can go hand in hand.