Thailand’s tarnished image abroad: Thai tourism in decline

Thailand's tourist industry is struggling. Last year we watched with astonishment as three months of protests and the unopposed occupation of Bangkok's Government House culminated in a week-long siege of the country's main airport, Suvarnabhumi, as the police stood by and did absolutely nothing. Tens of thousands of visitors were stranded by the yellow-shirt (then) anti-government PAD movement’s actions. This single event did immense harm to Thailand’s international image. This year it has been the turn of the red-shirted pro-Thaksin DAAD supporters, with clashes in the street that led to the humiliating cancellation of SE Asia’s ASEAN summit, planned for Pattaya. Regular political upheavals have reinforced a natural reluctance to visit a country which seems prone to a succession of natural disasters and man-made clangers. Thailand has had a bird flu scare, a plane crash in Phuket, the tsunami. There are regular accounts in the international press of the arrest and imprisonment of Westerners; extremely harsh penalties are sometimes imposed for what can appear to foreign observers, unfamiliar with Thailand's culture and laws, to be minor misdemeanours. Examples? Taking a beer mat from a bar, eating a doughnut on the way to a 7-11 supermarket check-out, contravening the severe lese majeste laws (for example by not standing up in a cinema during the pre-film national anthem). As a Brit, should you be rude about your own royal family during a flight to Bangkok, in the earshot of someone who takes these issues seriously, you could find yourself under arrest on arrival. The maximum lese majeste penalty for disrespectful comments about foreign royalty is two years’ imprisonment. Wherever you make them in the world.

Few customers, but plenty of pollution in Chiang Mai. Click on pic to see full-size imageFew customers, plenty of pollution in Chiang Mai...

On top of all this, even if limited progress has been made, Thailand still has a reputation for rampant corruption. Foreigners can feel they are tiptoeing on eggshells through some mystifying rules and regulations, and to cap it all, they appear to be somewhat 'flexible' according to occasionally rather questionable decisions and interpretations by individual officials. And it's hardly rare for an official to need an 'unofficial' payment to smooth the way...

Empty bars in Chiang Mai - the Chiang Mai Saloon. Click on pic to see FULL SIZE imageIt's dead at the Chiang Mai Saloon, on Loi Kroh Road in Chaing Mai. (The guy in red is the owner)

All serve to instil doubts into would-be travellers about the risks involved in visiting Thailand. Many seasoned travellers and long-term expats are able to come to terms with certain idiosyncrasies, which effectively boil down to respecting the Thai way of life. But expecting first-time visitors to be able to do the same? More than a little optimistic.

Things could well get worse before they get better. More political demonstrations are planned from late June. There have been rumours of one new Chiang Mai hotel being down to 10% occupancy. Bars and tourism-related businesses are closing left, right and centre. Ok this is the start of the low season, but even so. Sterling, the euro and USD are still weak compared to a few years ago, and there is little sign of Thailand's central bank relaxing its strong baht policy. Before the financial crisis began to bite, certain middle- and high-end hotel rates were rising well above inflation rate. Dwindling numbers of tourists that are still coming to Thailand are being more careful with their money. Other countries seem to be doing a better job of marketing their tourist industries, especially those S.E. Asian countries that are now selling themselves as family destinations, eating into what not so long ago seemed to be Thailand's monopoly of the tourist market in this part of the world. Bali, the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam are all making significant inroads into Thailand’s former share.

Thailand’s image has also been tarnished by accounts of high pollution in the Chiang Mai region as well as Bangkok, and endless traffic jams in its capital city. The pristine beaches and undeveloped islands of twenty years ago are a fading memory.

Demonstration outside Malaucene town hall - closure of the Papeteries de Malaucene after nearly five centuries of non-stop operation. Click on pic to see FULL SIZE imageThe town hall in Malaucene, Provence, France. The mill workers are fighting the closure of a five centuries old business, but it seems to be a lost cause...

The worrying economic situation on a global level is just exacerbating the problem. As an example just today in my little village of 2,750 people in the Provencal backwaters of France, workers from the sole industrial business in the area of any size were desperately trying to persuade the Schweitzer-Mauduit Group, American owners of Malaucene's five centuries old paper mill since 1920, not to make the final 211 employees redundant and close the mill altogether. The machines already stopped turning on April 1st of this year; some April Fool’s joke. A little piece of history, this mill has been producing paper using water from the Grozeau spring since 1545 - the oldest mill in France. A sign of how bad things are, that a business that has operated non-stop for almost five centuries is closing. And surprise, surprise – Schweitzer-Mauduit opened a 100 million dollar mill in China in 2005, making exactly the same product. The writing was on the wall. Industrial production was being moved from the West to Asia and a ready supply of cheap labour, long before the economic crisis began to bite.

Click on pic to see FULL SIZE image Click on pic to see FULL SIZE image Click on pic to see FULL SIZE image

Thailand has long been a popular destination for the French. A stagnating European economy will see a sizeable proportion of holidaymakers saving money and choosing to vacation much nearer to home. Some of those thinking of retirement to the Land of Smiles are now looking at different alternatives. A couple of years ago the owner of the Ad’Hoc pizzeria in Vaison la Romaine was convinced that Thailand was the place for him. Tucking into a ‘pizza royale’ there on Wednesday, he was much less enthusiastic. The euro… pollution… violence on the street… unstable politics... all came up in the course of a brief conversation, all issues raised by le patron, first.

Still on a French theme, there are some similarities between Thailand and France - the latter is also rather complacent about its value as a tourist destination. A case in point, winter sports vacations. France once held a virtual monopoly on the mass ski tourism business on their side of the Atlantic, with unrivalled infrastructure combining with natural resources and competitive prices to leave challengers far behind. But little by little less obvious ski tourism countries (eg Bulgaria, Russia), have been building up their appeal, and are starting to offer more competitive packages. To the point that some French resorts are now seriously feeling the pinch. A bit late now to think about investment in marketing, renewing infrastructure, making prices more competitive, with an increasing number of former clients having already voted with their ski boots, sliding off to considerably less expensive white slopes elsewhere. France is beginning to learn that size and even reputation isn’t everything. You have to be able to keep it up, and there are some younger and hungrier suitors out there.

Although regular travellers to the more exotic destinations are a resilient bunch, a major part of the global tourism market targets first-time visitors rather than returnees. These are considerably more fickle – it takes one worrying event, and a country can be quickly crossed off the list of possibilities.

It's the extra-low, low season in Pattaya - photo by MyThailand.com

Any positive signs from Thailand in response to the crisis? We have seen a few commercial gestures sponsored and marketed by TAT, the official Thai tourist board. Plenty of hand-waving from government officials and politicians. But the suspicion remains that Thailand will as ever muddle through, mai pen rai style. Tomorrow’s another day…

Edit 13.06.2009: Personal Thailand has some interesting facts on corruption taken from the recent NACC study

Edit 13.06.2009: Bangkok Blogger has a great post on the nitty gritty survival problems of ordinary Thais because of the current lack of tourists, and some quite astonishing personal anecdotes from his last week around the Big Mango... click her for "Bar Girls, Restaurant Girls, and Laundry Girls"

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23 comments:

Lloyd said...

I would also add that many tourists are simply getting sick of tourism the "Thai" way and the 'in your face' poor attitude towards "farangs" in general and the general degredation of much of Thailands natural beauty.

I adore my wife, her family and their culture yet I am losing interest for what was once I destination I longed to return too.

The FrogBlogger said...

Lloyd - having spent some time in Morocco, I don't find it so 'in your face' in Thailand, but I know what you mean. I suppose it all goes hand in hand with Westernisation, increasing greed. The innocence is being eroded away... is there much left, anywhere in the world?

Bangkok Blogger said...

The Thai authorites attempt at marketing Pattaya as a family destination is absurd. Likewise their policy on keeping the Baht strong is also absurd.

But I really think they are doing it in an effort to get the 'Up Market' tourist to come to Thailand and the 'riff raff' to keep away. - but they are very mistaken !!

Yes, some riff raff have gone, but they have not been replaced by Up Market tourists as hoped !

There are too many negative things in Thailand for it to become an 'Up Market' family destination.

The FrogBlogger said...

Bangkok Blogger, all good points, thanks.

Pattaya for families? What a joke. And it's about time the Thai tourist authorities realised that effective tourism policy is built on an across the board appeal - not just to high-end users, but to middle market and cheap end consumers as well. Right now, today, they could use tourists of any description, even the backpackers.

Smorg said...

I get a much better picture of what it's like there reading your blog than I do reading the newspapers online. It's sad to see that the pluses there had been overshadowed by the minuses the past couple of years. :o( Hopefully the worldwide economy would bounce back soon!

Thanks for more real updates from Thailand, Frog. :o)

The FrogBlogger said...

Thanks Smorg, I try to tell it as I see it, without the rose-tinted shades. I too hope Thailand's time will come again, but my feeling is that things are heading in the wrong direction at the moment. Still there are many, many places in the world where I would rather not be!

hobby said...

Two observations:

1. A decade or 2 ago crime against foreigners seemed to have been deemed 'off limits' and severe punishment was given to offenders who broke the code - IMO that 'code' no longer exists.

2. The more a 'tourist' knows about the 'real' Thailand the less they will like it.

But none of that seems to matter anymore, possibly because the Thai big wigs have observed that a new set of tourists will come, no matter what misfortune other tourists may have suffered before them, and no matter how spoilt the natural areas become.

And the old timers, repeat customers are not really tourists anymore - they either learn to ignore the real underbelly of Thailand, or they revel in it:)

Catherine said...

'Any positive signs from Thailand in response to the crisis? '

If you live here and do not depend on tourism, then the one positive is that Thailand is not as crowded.

But it is not just tourism that is taking a hit. Expats are now rethinking their decision to live in Thailand.

Before the landslide of negativity, I could blow off concerns from friends and relatives about either my living here or them coming for a visit.

Now it is next to impossible to pooh pooh, as there is too much negative news. And worse, it keeps rolling in.

Beer mats, being rude, donuts...

Come on Thailand, wake up!

The FrogBlogger said...

Hobby, I'm even more depressed now than when I was writing it, thanks! ;-) Your perspective over a long period of time makes sense, any code that there once was is being diluted by imported values of self-interest, profit at all costs.

All compounded of course by general laid-back Thai inefficiencies, corruption and cronyism.

Catherine, agreed, it's nice to see the lack of crowds, but worrying to see all those that have become dependent on the flow of tourists struggling to make a living. Though they seem less worried about it than me, it's all very 'that's life' in the bars and tourist haunts! There's a lesson to be learnt in there somewhere...

hobby said...

I'm even more depressed now

Yes, sadly, thats one of the few things I'm good at - bringing down people to my level of depression.

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work in reverse, as the more positive types can never seem to lift me to their level, although your & Lloyd's sharing over at VF's blog has helped put into perspective how self indulgent my wallowing in bleakness really is.

Catherine said...

Although the freelancing Thais around me do talk about the downturn, instead of sitting around, they have become more creative with making money.

Note: mine is just a small world so cannot really be taken into account when one has to look at the whole of Thailand.

For over a year I've been trying to get workers in to fix what was not done right when I renovated. But now, all of a sudden, new workers have appeared and there is a flurry of action.

It is similar with two other projects I've tried to get going. The dragging of feet has turned into the pitter patter of many.

And those of you who have tried to get anything done in SE Asia (not just Thailand) that is not a huge, expensive undertaking, will know what I'm talking about. Getting a reno done, no prob. Getting the small, totally not glamorous/important seeming odd jobs done, difficult.

I'm sorry that it has taken a downturn in the economy to bring on these changes, but this, I like.

Village Farang said...

For the life of me I can't remember when I stopped pondering and pontificating on the ills of Thailand. Eventually the novelty, of Thais being shocked at what I knew, began to wear off. Of course there were the, two month expats, who most certainly knew better than I. I guess at some point I just decided to mold my own little sphere of existence.

Life is clearly unfair and always has been. Just as there are two sides to a coin, there is a dark and light side of life. Having spent too much time in the dark, I now choose to live in the light and as far from the self inflicted evils of man, as I can muster.

I did want to thank you for mentioning my blog a while back and the astute notion of reading between the lines that lie between the lines.

Martyn said...

On my recent Thailand visit Pattaya was dead and on it's knees, even the bar girls had kind of given up on shouting "hello sexy man" at the few passing tourists. Udon Thani is never tourist rich but this time there were definitely less about, worrying times for Thailand and yet they seem to be doing little to rectify the problem. The strong baht won't help but neither will the blinkers they are wearing kickstart the recovery. A solution is a difficult equation.

Talen said...

All the things you mentioned coupled with the sever world wide economic downturn will keep Thai tourism down for a while.

With Americans and Brits seeing a decline in the dollar and pound it doesn't make Thailand as attractive as it once was.

I think Thai tourism will still be ok to a certain point though. The Tourism Authority has been really going after the Chinese, Korean, Russian and Indian tourists and those bets have been paying off to an extent.

Although Pattaya may not be that upmarket destination yet as Bangkok Blogger said, one only needs to look around town to see the changes being made to get those tourists. Beach road has been losing bars for 2 years and in their place are upscale malls and eateries. Soi 9 once had bars now is all hotels. Soi 8 has lost half it's bars and soi 7 is slated for more hotel expansions.

The FrogBlogger said...

Hobby, a couple of limbless beggars in a side soi soon puts things in perspective for me if I start to wallow... Catherine, I'll believe it when I see it! Maybe Thais are making more of an effort because of the downturn, but in plenty of cases they react in the wrong way to a lack of business - they put prices up! Actually I didn't have too many problems with repair problems during my last stay. I have a really good mate in Chiang Mai who is a tuk-tuk driver, knows everyone, a real fixer. I give him a lot of business ferrying me around - he acts as site foreman/project manager/cheapest product finder. Has worked so far!... VF, that's the only perspective that works for true peace of mind. Still, I think it's important to be engaged, if you feel for those who are less fortunate and whose main concerns are day-to-day survival, with no chance of setting themselves up in relative isolation from the world's ills. Martyn, I'm not so sure about blinkered as just too accepting of the social order, the corrupt and exploiters get away with things that would be jumped upon in the West. Talen I just can't see Pattaya being transformed into an upmarket resort, but what do I know. I hope you're right and the new tourist will be the prosperous Asians, but they're suffering from the crisis as well of course.

hobby said...

Good point about the wallowing, although such sights sometimes allows the usually well hidden 'bleeding heart' within me to trigger another round of wallowing at the injustice/unfairness of it all.

Pattaya has a chance of being an upmarket resort/theme park type place for rich asians/families, but it would take much more coordination in planning than I've seen exhibited anywhere else in Thailand, (except maybe for co-ordination shown in crushing any discussion of you know what:)

The FrogBlogger said...

Hobby that's the problem, get too engaged and it's too easy to be disillusioned on another level. A position somewhere between outright wallowing and VF's seeming isolationism would seem about right. If anyone gets the balance right, please let me know the secret ;-)

As for Pattaya, the sceptic in me sees all the going upmarket hype as just another opportunity for the scammers and the corrupt to make a few million.

Village Farang said...

On an individual level, I'm not convinced that our "Don Quixote" imitations, will make any measurable difference. Call me cynical, but I don't trust institutions and how they spend money. I also suspect the motives of many of the do-gooders. Often it seems more about their egos, self-image and lifestyle, than anything else. Talking is all about the hearing of ones own voice and does little to change things.

That leaves getting down and dirty and giving of your time in a hands-on way. All I can manage is my parents, my wife and her immediate family, jobs for a few villagers, and some assistance at school, temple, and community events. I prefer to remain in the shadows, so use my wife as a surrogate and only pretend to be able to influence the lives of people I can literally reach out and touch.

The FrogBlogger said...

VF, there is an argument that there is no such thing as 'pure' altruism. It's all reciprocal, to a greater or lesser extent. But take away quid pro quo altruism, and what do you have left? At least it's better than the alternative...

Much as you are entirely correct about the self-inflicted nature of man's problems, we're a social animal that has managed to survive so far by maintaining a delicate balance between aggression and cooperation. I feel some responsibility towards future generations; even if that 'altruistic' urge is genetically and memetically driven rather than by some objective moral compass, we need it to have any chance of surviving.

hobby said...

You guys are way ahead of me - I've settled for just leaving as small a footprint as I can.

The FrogBlogger said...

hobby, have to admit that's the general direction I'm heading in these days. Somewhere between that, and VF's approach anyway. The do-gooder thing is reciprocated less and less anyway in a modern, increasingly selfish world, worse still the response you get is mostly negative or exploitative, so it's not worth the hassle. Sad though that things are coming to this...

Anonymous said...

Oh I disagree so much with most of the criticism of Thailand. I have been a visiting Thailand and Pattay for 30 years. My best experience was always the last time I was there.

The Thais are searingly intelligent people who live in a notoriously harsh environment. THere are no cushions, no second chances, its all a matter of life and death. We wouldnt last 4 hiours in a paddy field and couldnt survive on 4 dollars a day.

Its not a choice thing. You must keep your family and do whatever it takes to survive and wear a smile. Its that or rifle but and paddy fields.

They are beautiful people and I doubt whether one of you bloggers could wear such smiles whilst having to suffer the awful ugliness of the obese classless farang. Pattaya is a clinic for the most hapless of Farangs - the misfits - the worst of the worst.

However - there are probably more sex slaves in LOndon than in Pattaya - but at the end of the day - I love these people - they are and have to be survivors no matter what.

I was there for 6 months , returning in May 09. THe best time I have ever had. Thanks

Well travelled Ben London

hobby said...

Ben: During your many trips you no doubt noticed that the environment is a lot more harsh for some Thai's than it is for others - have you ever pondered why that is so?

Overall, I think Thailand is a rich country in many ways, with abundance & excess, but it also seems to have a lot of poor.