Please describe your work
I work in risk and crisis management for the tourist industry and private sector. My clients include banks, optical companies and even brewers, focusing on risk mitigation and updating their risk and crisis manuals. Mostly, though, I am a consultant to the tourist industry. Within that sector, I focus on MICE (meetings, incentives, conference and exhibitions). My background is heavily linked with the MICE segment.
I got involved in MICE while working in Germany and Portugal and that was the reason I was honoured with the Director of Marketing assignment in the Royal Orchid Sheraton and consequently became heavily involved with TICA, training the industry all over Thailand.
Back then, few people in Thailand knew or understand what MICE was all about. One exception was Mr Alois Fassbind, general manager of the Royal Cliff Resort Hotel in Pattaya. I had the pleasure of explaining to the then Minister to the Office of Prime Minister in charge of Tourism what MICE was all about.
Ialso produced the first incentive brochure about Bangkok, which I proudly presented to the Director General of the Crown Property Bureau, one of the shareholders of the Royal Orchid Sheraton.
Provided we plan ahead, Thailand can keep on increasing the number of people coming here. According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), we’ll see 50 million here in 2020. Some people believe Thailand could have as many as 100 million tourists by 2050.
Right now, Thailand is similar in this respect to Spain in the 70s and 80s. Back then the Spanish realised they had some problem and changed the way they did things and planned accordingly. Spain now welcomes around 75 million visitors a year.
Isn’t it time to focus on attracting quality tourists instead of just increasing numbers?
Concerning quality visitors, we missed the boat about 30 years ago. Because of the propitious socio-demographic trends in Asia Pacific and the rise of the Low-Cost Carriers, there’s not much we can do to stop the tourist flow now. It’s too late, Thailand is now perceived as the Spain of Asia.
Thai hotels room rates are seen as cheap. Why is that?
It’s all about poor marketing. There’s a lack of sales expertise in hotels, so rates keep getting pushed down and down. Sales staff try and sell from behind their computers. It’s not enough.
Let’s face it, Thailand’s primary markets nowadays are China and India – both are mass markets. From Europe, we’re getting lower middle-class tourists these days. It makes the dream of quality tourism impossible. Some islands in Thailand do have quality tourists, but with 30 or 35 million visitors it’s becoming increasingly impossible to attract quality tourists.
Is Thailand doing enough protect its environment?
No. We don’t protect the environment enough because we don’t educate the younger generation. At a top school recently, I saw the students throwing their empty sweet packages on the floor, not in the bins. I even caught my gardeners throwing rubbish over an adjoining wall. It’s all about being selfish. You can see that also from the way people drive, it is all about me first.
It’s widely acknowledged that some destinations are simply too attractive, with too many visitors. What can be done about that?
One of the challenges for Thailand is that we have six or seven ‘pockets’ – places where the vast majority tourists visit. The ministry of tourism is trying to promote new areas by making them part of a ‘cluster’ of destinations that include new as well as old resorts, to spread visitors more evenly across the country. The minister of tourism Khun Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul is doing a great job in this, primarily economic, sense.
Now Thailand needs to look at improving its infrastructure to make this possible. Let’s hope that will be developed faster than Suvarnabhumi Airport, which was already nearly at capacity the day it opened.
Thailand already faces workforce shortages, so where will the new workers come from?
That’s another great challenge for Thailand. We’re already seeing a lack of service compared to the 80s and in earlier times. The foremost problem is that staff are promoted too quickly. They don’t have the right experience. Education is also not up to scratch – only a handful of universities have the right curriculum and, more importantly, teachers, so there’s a lot to be done.
We see a lot more Filipinos and Malaysians working here than in the past. There are also far fewer expat hotel general managers because hotel owners do not want the extra cost of schooling for their children and other expenses.
The recent World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit in Bangkok apparently cost Thailand some US$3 million to stage. Money well spent?
I’m rather neutral about it. However, I was disappointed with what was said. Not much depth, lots of politics. For that amount of money, there wasn’t much in the way of publicity either, other than a few stories in magazines and e-mags. The importance of tourism to this country should not be underestimated as it accounts for 10% of GDP and as much as 20% indirectly, so maybe it was money well spent, specifically for the local attendees’ awareness
Thailand is also reportedly contributing a significant amount of money to Michelin for its restaurant guide in this country. Is that a good deal?
I can think of lots of other, better ways to spend the money. Tourist are already very knowledgeable about where to eat in Thailand, and this will have little impact on the motivation of the future visitors to make a detour or a special journey, as the Guide recommends.
Are Thai universities doing a good job producing a new generation of hotel managers and workers?
Universities here are good on theoretical but not practical skills. Most have six-week internships, instead of at least six months. Our industry needs training. Also, most lecturers have no hands-on experience.
A good starting point is teaching manners. At one university I lectured recently, not a single student welcomed me by saying ‘good morning.’
As a lecturer myself, I teach students presentation skills, and for the final exam, I bring in experts like hotel GMs, and tour operators to judge their work. In Thailand, there are more than 60 universities that teach tourism and hospitality, but only 12 teach in English.
What do you make of the widely reported problems regarding excessively long queues at the airports?
The solution is straightforward – plan ahead. Nothing else. No more excuses –immigration needs more staff. Recently at the airport, I noted 25 counters, but only 12 were open.
More crucial, however, why do we need to give every visitor an arrival form?
Nearly every other country can get their arrival statistics without handing out forms, which I think delays the immigration’s processing of passengers by an average of 45 seconds per person.
Overall, what are Thailand’s strengths and weaknesses as a tourist destination?
Major strength: its location in South East Asia and its worldwide reputation earned by hard work of all private and public tourism stakeholders in the 80’s and the 90’s.
Major weakness: poor planning and still thinking the Thai smile can solve all.
Which countries are Thailand’s biggest competitors concerning tourists?
That depends on the visitor’s segment. For leisure tourism, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. In the future, Myanmar will be its biggest regional contender!
For business events, Singapore and Hong Kong will remain the regional challenges, and the rise of Africa will entice many organisers to consider new and motivational destinations there, as they did 30 years ago when global ‘MICE’ discovered Asia.
If you were tourism minister for a day, what would you do, or change?
I would place Safety & Security higher on the national tourism agenda. Too many visitors still lose their lives because of a happy-go-lucky approach by many suppliers.
These days one of the primary selection criteria for both business and leisure travel is the perception of safety and security of a destination. Sadly the “new normal” make 100% protection from all evil and nonchalant service delivery impossible, but creating more awareness within every rank of the tourism service suppliers would be my “order of the day.”
What are your favorite destinations in Thailand?
The garden of my home in Pattanakarn and the tranquillity of the mountains around Chiang Rai.