Bursting thetourism bubble

Phuket boat tragedy serves as a grim industry warning of the need to control greed By Suchat Sritama

The boat capsize in Phuket which claimed 47 lives has raised questions about whether Thailand should continue luring tourists in large numbers or start to pull back and rethink the dangers of "overtourism" until better safeguards are in place.

Over the past 10 years from 2008-2017, number of international arrivals to Thailand surged 2.42 times, from 14.58 million in 2008 to 35.38 million in 2017.

The country plans to attract even more tourists this year and next, targeting 38 million and 41 million respectively.

The National Statistical Office and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) have counted tourism receipts from international markets in 2008 at 574 billion baht.

Tourist spending climbed to 592 billion baht in 2010, 1.20 trillion baht in 2013, 1.45 trillion baht in 2015 and expected to be around 2 trillion baht this year.

When combined with domestic markets, the entire tourism sector last year contributed 12% of direct income to gross domestic product (GPD) plus another 7-8% of indirect income to related businesses such as food suppliers and service businesses.

Yet even as the country enjoys a tourism surge, many problems have arisen including those concerning safety and security.

The boat tragedy in Phuket shows the need for better preventive safety and tourism management.

This incident has also prompted tourism experts to ask whether the country should rethink the dangers of inviting too many tourists in some areas.

ISLANDS AT RISK

It is no surprise that many of Thailand's beautiful islands and beaches attract tourists from around the world.

However, how many is too much?

Phuket alone gets over 12 million visitors a year, and Pattaya even more.

Supawan Tanomkieatipume, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), warned that small islands and beaches that are overcrowded with tourists could face safety and security problems.

Maya Bay in Phi Phi Leh Island in Krabi province is regularly overrun, similarly to Koh Lan near Pattaya on the east coast and most famously, Phuket and Pattaya.

Many tourists flock into these areas, and have to scramble for limited public facilities. They also leave large amounts of rubbish behind. Having too many tourists can also damage the environment and the natural beauty of scenic spots.

"This is a good time for us to reconsider how to manage our resources and how to control the flow of tourists especially at famous spots," she said.

The Phuket accident should serve as a lesson for the tourism industry. Large tour groups need good planning and management. Yet the country imposes few controls on how many tourists can visit.

WARNING FLAG FOR ANDAMAN

Krit Srifah, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand Southern Chapter, said coastal spots on the Andaman sea became popular with Chinese tourists but there are risks from travellers, especially during the coming peak period including the National Holiday or Golden Week on Oct 1-7, 2018.

Tourism operators in the region have urged the government to restore confidence by improving safety and security measures.

Each year, millions of Chinese people travel overseas during that long vacation and Thailand is one of the favorite destinations.

More than 9.8 million of Chinese visited Thailand last year. Many of them flocked into the kingdom during Chinese New year and the Golden Week period.

UNFAIR GAME

The Hotel Association agrees that not all stakeholders benefit from tourism growth. Instead, operators in 10 major destinations such as Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Hua Hin grab up to to 70-80% of the total trade.

However, limiting the number of tourists to ease overtourism in top destinations is unfair for those investors who poured in their money.

More importantly, lowering tourist numbers will kill small independent operators in quieter destinations.

Tourism operators and the public sector should help promote attractions in provinces across the country and encourage tourists to move out of the big cities, it says.

Another aspect of unfairness concerns so-called real income. It is speculated that 20-30% of total tourism revenue or approximately 200-300 billion baht is transferred to third parties per year, such as online travel agents or OTA.

Nipon Boonmasuwanran, president of the Online Tourism Club (Thailand), which formed in 2017, said many foreigners enter Thailand to open an OTA business, travel companies, ground service operations and related businesses.

Many of them run the business illegally or by using local nominees.

"Thailand a leading player in the global tourism map but a lot of income is blowing back overseas through illegal and hoax business," he said.

Over the years, foreign OTA companies such as booking.com, hotels.com, expedia, agoda.com, traveloka, and many others have been penetrating the Thai tourism market as they see high potential to gain business.

As a result, the Association of Thai Travel Agents reports that hundreds of local companies have closed their doors as customers dry up.

AOT WORKS ON EXPANSION

Airports of Thailand Plc (AOT), operator of six international airports, recently predicted Thai tourism would continue to grow after the International Civil Aviation Organisation or Icao removed its safety warning in October last year.

The removal of Icao's red flag prompts existing airlines and new carriers to add more services with potential markets including China and the Southeast Asia region.

This will bring many more visitors to the kingdom.

AOT is undertaking investment worth 220 billion baht. All projects will be completed in the next few years.

In the near future, AOT will build two new airports and to manage or expand four existing airports owned by the Department of Airports.

Two new airports are Chiang Mai Airport 2, which will be located in Lumphun province and Phuket Airport 2, in Pangnga province. Another four airports to be managed by the AOT are in Tak, Sakon Nakhon, Chumphon and Udon Thani.

GOING SUSTAINABLE

Many tourism organisations including the World Tourism Organisation, Pacific Asia Travel Association, Tourism Council of Thailand and Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports predict strong growth for the tourism industry over the coming decade. The Asia and Pacific region is most dynamic.

They all agreed the sector should turn to focus on the quality of tourists.

Minister of Tourism and Sports Weerasak Kowsurat said many countries such as Mexico, Japan, UK, New Zealand and Spain have been putting efforts into protecting their industries by endorsing sustainable initiatives.

Thailand can learn some of these tricks, observers say.

In Mexico, the government is offering hotel operators long-term loans if they turn old buildings or offices into so-called green hotels using solar cells. The move is not aimed to lower the number of hotel guests, but it can help maintain a business.

In UK, the government has been asking the owners of old or abandoned buildings to renovate and transform their properties into green properties. This initiative will help protect local businesses and the environment.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the government recently enforced an eco tax, where tourists are required to pay a small tax for each night they stay at Balearic Island.

Spanish authorities will allocate collect to improve tourism facilities and public services. The scheme could limit the number of visitors on the island, which is already under pressure from large crowds.

In Australia, the Reef Fund Programme has been created to protect local tourism. Hotel operators are urged to reduce pollution by reusing old buildings and transforming them into green buildings.

This move is expected to attract more environmentally conscious tourists from overseas and other parts from Australia.

New Zealand has launched a "tourism infrastructure fund" to help deal with overtourism.

Last week, Myanmar unveiled a new foreign direct investment policy (FDI) to hundreds of Thai investors in Bangkok. The FDI law is aimed to encourage investment from overseas including Thailand.

U Ohn Maung, Union Minister for Hotels and Tourism of Myanmar, said Myanmar would not focus on mass tourism as some of its neighbours had done.

From this year onward, Myanmar will promote local and eco-tourism across the country, from beaches along the Bengal Sea to snow in the upper north of the country. Myanmar intends to have Thai operators help develop diving, eco-tourism and community-based tourism.

MINISTRY AWAKE

According to Mr Weerasak, the government has introduced tourism strategies to cope with tourism change.

"The entire industry needs an overhaul through many initiatives," he said.

Limiting how long people can visit in overcrowded and congested areas is one idea.

Another measure is using reservation platforms specifically for high demand places.

If booking meets capacity, the system will deactivate so tourists or travel companies need to book another time. Tourism operators also can promote attractions in secondary provinces.

Tourism authorities are encouraging tourists to visit 55 secondary provinces this year. Local tourists travelling to the provinces are able to deduct their personal income tax.

Pongpanu Svetarundra, permanent secretary of the ministry, said the boat tragedy in Phuket has led to widespread worries about safety, which has also led to many travellers cancelling bookings.

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