By Colin Hastings
PLUCKED from the private sector where she was an award-winning businesswoman, Ms Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul has spent the last three years as Minister of Tourism and Sports bringing new ideas and fresh impetus to this country’s vitally important tourism industry.
Her appointment has proved effective, with the number of arrivals continuing to rise year on year. And they’re staying longer and spending more, all of which is in line with the government’s objectives.
Ms Kobkarn is a high profile minister who uses social media to put across her messages, including a regular flow of down-to-earth photos of her using ordinary taxis and eating Thai dishes at street vendor stalls.
With an architecture degree from the US and background in advertising and management as chairman of Toshiba Thailand, she is well equipped for her responsibilities.
Top of her list is to increase revenue from tourism. Ms Kobkarn, wants to see an improvement in the kind of tourist coming here. “It’s the quality of these visitors that we’re looking at. The emphasis now is on revenue per head and the quality.
How can Thailand increase revenue without increasing numbers?
“By extending the average length of stay from 8.9 days, and by increasing the average spend of 5,100 baht per day as recorded last year,” says Ms Kobkarn.
And what will keep these “quality tourists” here longer and to spend more?
“We have new strategies, including the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) ‘Twelve Hidden Gems’ campaign that highlights some of Thailand’s lesser known destinations such as Lampang, Nan, Loei, Buriram, Samut Songkhram, Ratchaburi, Nakon Si Thammarat, Chumpon, Chantaburi, Trang, Petchabun, and Trat.
“In the first year of this campaign in 2015, revenue from tourism in these destinations increased by 15%. Last year they were up by another 8-9%.
“We also have a strategy to link new destinations to established ones. Visit Chiang Mai, for example, and then spend time in nearby Lampang and Lampoon before returning to Chiang Mai. This will help to extend length of stays in Thailand.”
Among her other initiatives is a plan to encourage the hotel industry to “go local.”
“Instead of filling their in-room mini bars with the international items, we suggest they offer local products like rice crackers. In places like Chiang Rai, hotels can buy local vegetables and fish directly from local farms for use in their restaurants.
“Promoting local products would go down well in big MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and events) functions with foreign participants.
“It’s a win-win situation, cutting out the middlemen,” she quips.
At the time of this interview, Bangkok was swirling with controversy and indignation over the apparent ban on street food. Ms Kobkarn said then she did not know all the details of the move but insisted that it is not a total ban.
“It’s all about improving hygiene and raising standards. The BMA’s (Bangkok Metropolitan Authority) plan is to standardise the situation so that vendors in future provide clean and delicious food that’s safe and hygienic for locals and tourists.
“In Chinatown, street vendors are now starting to wear hats, menus in English should be available, and there must be space for people, including those with disabilities, to walk past safely.
“Overall, sales will improve.”
Sustainable tourism is high on the list of Ms Kobkarn’s priorities. “Our mission is to have sustainable growth. We will follow the late King’s footpath with sufficiency economy, and by looking at revenue, community and environment. We must involve all sectors of the population, especially the agrarian sector.
“Responsibilities include waste water, forests, coral reefs and even garbage. Otherwise we can’t move ahead. You can wait until someone comes along and asks you to do these things.”
Another key issue is security. Ms Kobkarn acknowledges that although Tourist Police numbers are at record levels, they are not enough for visitors coming to Thailand every year.
“We’re looking for volunteers,” she says. “So we’re asking everybody to be a host. They’ll be the eyes of the pineapple, looking out for and helping tourists. Tour Police have more equipment to improve road safety. And owners of taxis must take responsibility for the actions of their drivers.”