Going beyond growing pains

Thailand’s minister of tourism & sports Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul tells Xinyi Liang-Pholsena why creating sustainable inclusive growth in tourism remains an enduring aim and challenge


What’s life after 30 (million arrivals) for Thailand?
We aim to be a quality leisure destination, and that’s definitely the route we would like to pursue. We no longer care much about the number of arrivals. The revenue, spending per head per day, length of stay, and quality of activities that we can offer tourists, etc, are our ultimate goals.

Are you making progress so far in being a quality destination?
Yes, we have improved. If comparing 1Q, 2Q or even last year with the previous year, we have seen an increase not only in terms of revenue but also spending per head. The length of stay grew a bit and we can still do more. That is why we are working very hard to introduce new destinations, and this partly explains why we are in Chiang Mai (for Thailand Travel Mart Plus; TTM+ where the interview was done) to showcase new destinations in the country.

For example, Lampang was introduced under TAT’s (Tourism Authority of Thailand) 12 Hidden Gems campaign last year, so this year’s 12 Hidden Gems Plus campaign introduced Lamphun (next to Lampang). This will help to extend the length of stay and work towards our mission of spreading tourism out for greater inclusion and wealth distribution.

We are also working on this under the National Tourism Board, which is a collaboration of 10 ministries headed by the deputy prime minister to oversee short- and long-term planning and budget for tourism. The roads, trains, national parks, airports, etc, should all be geared towards the same goal of sustainability and quality tourism.

‘Thainess’ is used to convey the tourism message. What’s Thainess to you?
It’s the way of the Thai people. There is no one Thainess – there can never be, because Thailand comprises so many ethnic groups and they’re all Thai. Chiang Mai used to be the capital of the Lanna kingdom; likewise for the south, which was another country in the olden days. Thainess means the ways of each region in Thailand, each reflecting their own identity.

To me, the Discover Thainess campaign is not just for international tourists but also to educate young Thais to value what we have and carry on the torch. This generation was born with computers, Internet, etc; they will only watch (TV shows like) Kim Kardashian, Gossip Girl and MasterChef; and think that’s value.

I used to hate ram Thai classical dance in school and now I appreciate it very much. You will pass the stage where you think the outside world is more modern and civilised.

How do you perceive Thailand’s marketing efforts on the global front? Will Amazing Thailand be changed soon?
I think we are on the right track. I have received many comments that we should change (the slogan), but I believe in the good things that we have. We should have one identity, but develop from that and keep the goodness of what we have.

Personally, I like the new Amazing Thailand logo reflecting the Land of Smiles. At the end of day it’s about the people, that Thai people love to serve, give our best and give happiness to our friends and guests – it’s in our blood.

What’s the greatest challenge in the Thai tourism landscape now?
It’s the management. With the increment of tourist arrivals, questions on how to manage the safety, convenience or even the identity of the place come into play. For example, by promoting community tourism we hope farmers will be less reliant on agriculture for a living, but if there are too many visitors, (communities) might start to lose their identity and sell their land for quick cash.

Is it hard to manage the China market, which is coming in droves?
It’s hard but manageable, and Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are good examples. The success of the Lost in Thailand movie brought big numbers of Chinese, but the local community has learnt how to manage and communicate with the Chinese despite their initial complaints. If we understand (visitors’ motivations and intentions), that they come because they love Thailand and our culture, then that’s a good starting point already. We should seek to educate (the Chinese visitors), let them know the proper etiquette, say, refrain from talking loudly in temples or using the toilet in a certain way.

They (a discussion during TTM+) said only five per cent of Chinese have passports [laughs], and we have to ask ourselves if we want another five per cent to come to Thailand.

And do you want them?
[Pauses] Yes, but we have to prepare ourselves. I think they will learn faster than the first generation, just like Thais. I had the same problem when I took my Thai dealers abroad 20 years ago (Kobkarn was formerly the head of Toshiba Thailand) – they were loud, full of complaints, grabbed everything when they shop, must have Thai food every day, etc. The second generation (of Thai dealers) is much more sophisticated. I think it’s the same thing for Chinese. Once the country opens up, they will learn faster and faster.

How do you deal with the regular negative coverage of Thailand’s tourism sector and regain trust from visitors?  
We have to face the problem, take it seriously and talk to the people – the team, the locals, those concerned – and not give up. If we look at it from a broader view, the percentage (of incidents) has decreased (against arrival numbers). We have to continuously improve our safety measures. We will never have enough police, tourist police, equipment, so joint efforts are important – how everyone  can help to take care of tourists in each destination. A good thing is (stakeholders) now believe tourism is their duty; in the past everyone would point their finger at the other person.

What have you achieved so far to challenge your critics that you came into this role without experience in tourism?
The growth of the industry is an achievement of the team. I don’t know everything, but I believe in teamwork and supporting a good team. We have many good things and plans in place already. If anyone coming (into this position) always comes up with new things, continuity will become a problem because plans change according to the new minister, governor or the political party.

You don’t need the best ideas as much as commitment and actual implementation. (Continuity) is something the National Tourism Board has put an emphasis on in order to solve some of the past problems. I know I’ll be changed after elections next year, but the ideas and planning should not be changed so there’s continuity.

What do you want your legacy to be?
If people only think of (creating a legacy) there will be no continuity [tears]… If I were to think ‘this should be (for) me’, the new minister would think the same thing and we would go back to (square one). We should think for the country, not for the individual – it’s important to put the country above self.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, August 5, 2016 issue, on page 10. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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