Time to Improve Thai Tourism?
Recent statistics from Thailand's Tourism Department projected 24.5 million tourists would visit in 2013, up from 22.3 million in 2012 and a target of 30 million visitors in 2015. In the first 2 months of 2013, combined passenger volume at the six airports run by the Airports of Thailand Plc (AoT), including the flagship Suvarnabhumi, soared to 15.06 million compared with 13.01 million in the same period in 2012 and reflected an uptrend in demand driven by general improvement in the economy and the tourism industry.

The World Economic Forum (WEF)'s latest report, The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) released in early 2013, ranked Singapore highest among ASEAN countries and with world ranking at 10th out of the 139 countries, followed by Malaysia (World: 35th) and Thailand (World: 41st). Thailand has done well in the report despite some weaknesses, however there are some serious issues for Thailand that need improvement. In order to keep itself as the tourism leader in Southeast Asia with growing numbers of visitors and the industry's highest incomes in the region, Thailand has to compete with up-coming neighboring nations and can not slow down. Reference the graph below, it shows a substantial improvement in the competitiveness ranking of countries in Asia like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines; while Thailand's ranking dropped 4 points in 2013 from 2009's result.
The World Economic Forum, who published the tourism competitiveness report, believes that:

"Tourism competitiveness is an important economic indicator. It is a major element in economic stimulation packages. Tourism is among the largest employers in most countries and also a fast-lane vehicle into the workforce for young people and women. Encouraging travel boosts consumer and business confidence, it strengthens two-way trade and promotes export income."

According to the summary section of the report and the break-down into categories and sub-categories, Singapore benefits from excellent transport infrastructure, including ground and airport facilities; while Malaysia leads because of its low fuel prices, ticket taxes & airport charges, and its competitive hotel rates. For Thailand, its ranking declined by only two places since the last edition with the report stating it demonstrated some resilience to the natural disasters (with reference to the flood) and political unrest with which the country has been grappling. Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia were behind Thailand respectively. Laos and Myanmar were not included in the report.
Some of Thailand's highlights in Tourism in the report are:

Thailand has its strengths in giving high prioritization to travel and tourism with good destination-marketing campaigns (ranked 11th) and relative price competitiveness (ranked 25th); friendly attitude of Thais towards foreign tourists (ranked 13th), preserving cultural resources (Thailand is endowed with rich natural resources and a strong affinity for Travel & Tourism - ranked and 23rd and 18th, respectively) and being active in international fairs and exhibitions.

Below are some of Thailand's weaknesses and the government's initiatives to solve the problems:

- Safety and Security:
In the Safety & Security sub-categories, the "reliability of police services" scores dropped dramatically from ranking 87th in 2011 to 98th in 2013. The Thai authorities recently have faced criticism for failing to deal swiftly and decisively with serious crimes against tourists.

On the April 6, 2013, Mr. Somsak Pureesrisak, the new Thailand's Tourism and Sports Minister, addressed the issues of safety for tourists and announced on his first day in the office that tourist safety will take priority under his watch, reported the Bangkok Post newspaper. He also expressed confidence that he can work smoothly with related state agencies such as the Royal Thai Police.

- Infrastructure:
When comparing to neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, Thailand comes out well on quality of infrastructure; however, the competitiveness scores in 2013 shows improvement only in Air Transportation Infrastructure. Other sub-categories under infrastructure for Thailand are mostly ranked more than 10 points lower. These was due mainly to Thailand being relatively slow in road, rail and water transport development. 

Thailand's government, in early 2013, announced its grand infrastructure development plan, with 55 projects worth Bt2.27 trillion (US$66.29 billion) to be completed by 2020. These projects are part of the government's long-term development plan, however, are being expedited by a commitment to infrastructure investment, the opening up of Myanmar, and the implementation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), reported the Nation newspaper. Of the total budget of Bt2.2 trillion, 64% will fund 31 rail-related projects (includes 10 urban light rail routes, high-speed trains, and dual-track train services), 24% will go to 13 road projects, 7% to seven water-transport projects, and 4.75% to four air-transport projects, said Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt. These projects are expected to improve linkages between Thailand and its ASEAN neighbors, reduce logistics costs, deal with growing traffic congestion, and boost tourism revenue, reported the paper. The opposition party and some in the public sector
are concerned about the transparency of the project and the debt load. A recent government survey about the scheme showed that while roughly 90% of respondents supported the scheme, many were concerned about its transparency.
- Information Technology
According to the WEF's report, Thailand was also marked down for information and communication technology infrastructure (90th). Its mobile phone coverage may score a high mark, but Thailand is still crawling toward 3G technology while other countries are already eyeing 4G. The 3G Network is planned for April 2013 after a long delay and digital TV is also planned for 2013.

- Low concerns for the environment
The report commented, "... given the importance of the natural environment for the country’s tourism, environmental sustainability should be a greater priority".. Thailand is ranked 99th on this indicator, down from 97th in 2009 report. The sub-category score reflected poor environmental regulations, lack of stringency and enforcement, and poor care of threatened species. The government has not publicly commented on this issue.


Thailand Tourism today:

Besides the above, there are numerous problems facing Thai tourism including congestion at Suvarnabhumi airport, traffic jams in Bangkok and other big cities, and problems at a provincial level, for example the burning of crop residues that cause heavy smoke in Chiang Mai and annual floods in the region.

The demography of tourists is also changing, with Asian tourists rising to replace Europeans and North Americans. India, China, Indonesia, Russia and Australia have provided strong growth to the tourism industry. The number of tourist arrivals in 2012 compared to the year before:

  • From China increased by 11.8% to 1.6 million visitors
  • From India increased by 4.75% to 681,000 visitors
  • From Indonesia by 1.9% to 282,000 visitors
  • From Australia by 4.33% to 621,00 visitors
  • From Russia increased by 25% to 1.3 million visitors



Thailand is currently benefiting from the economic growth in its Asian neighbors to offset weak growth from tourists from Europe and North America, however Thailand stands to lose out on this growth if more is not done to improve visitor safety and preserve natural resources. Thailand has strong assets in beautiful beaches, lush jungles and its cultural heritage - it would be a shame ignore the one of the nation's most important industries in the shadow of political unrest and natural disasters.

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