Thai tourism dilemma

Calls are growing for the Thai government to plan international tourism on a long-term and sustainable basis. Ben Montgomery, local chair of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), says that the big issue is whether to go for growth or quality. PATA argues that Thailand has traditionally gone for growth in sheer numbers. If this continues, then the 24 million international arrivals in 2014 could turn into 50 million annually by the end of the current decade.

Montgomery argues that the consequences of the lust for ever-increasing numbers will be a terrible strain on the country’s resources and infrastructure which could well cause irrevocable damage. For example, Phuket is already suffering from a surfeit of visitors as instanced by the overcrowding at the airport. Pattaya has chronic traffic problems brought about by the immense increase in the number of tour buses and the road improvement schemes with final completion estimated several years in the future.

PATA accepts that the international tourist profile has shifted in recent years. Pattaya, for example, is no longer the playground of single men from Europe, Australia and the United States, but has grown into a much more sophisticated and diversified city which is fast becoming a suburb of Bangkok. But PATA asks whether the booming Chinese visitor presence in Pattaya really requires many millions more descending on the Eastern Seaboard. Chinese tourists, who are mainly on prepaid packages and use tour buses for transport, have largely replaced Russians in the resort city. Research last year showed that only two percent of Chinese citizens had visited Thailand, but that 50 percent hoped to do so. PATA wonders whether anyone has seriously looked at the social and environmental impact of doubling or tripling international arrivals within just a few years. The answer appears to be negative.

But not everyone agrees that tourist numbers should be restricted in some way. John Koldowski of Thammasat University points out that predictions and demand forecasts do not always turn out as anticipated. Thus the decline of Russian tourist numbers had not been anticipated prior to the annexation of Crimea, the imposition of European and US sanctions and the collapse of the ruble. The Tourism Authority of Thailand will shortly open an office in Prague to attract east European visitors, whilst the Tourism Council of Thailand is keen to promote its interests in South Africa. Also expected to grow is the cross-border traffic once the ASEAN Economic Community comes on stream from the beginning of next year.

Other suggestions include the proposal that Thailand could develop some of its islands as ecotourism centres, attracting quality rather than quantity to achieve profitability. Similar ideas have been floated in the less populated districts of greater Pattaya such as Naklua or Mabprachan Lake. However, it is far from clear that funding for these macro projects is firmly on the agenda. The private sector has so far shown interest in funding more family entertainment venues such as fun parks and mass tourism outlets.

A spokeswoman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand said she was aware of the debate going on about Thai tourism and its ramifications for Pattaya in particular. She said that the current projects for road widening in Pattaya and the firm possibility of linking the area to Bangkok by fast or bullet trains should enable the resort to deal with an expected surge in numbers. City Hall has called for Pattaya to become the Riviera of Thailand by the end of the decade.

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