It was a rather unusual statement from the governor of the Tourism Auhority of Thailand at the last ITB. During the traditional Thai press conference, Suraphon Svetasreni was rather serious, highlighting the new challenges faced by Thailand tourism. “We celebrate a double anniversary this year as TAT and Thai Airways International enter both their 50th anniversary. Over the last 50 years, both Thai Airways and TAT helped tourism to enhance Thailand’s prosperity. However, times have changed. There [are] plenty of people who want to travel today. However, the challenge is now more about quality than quantity,” he declared. More than ever Svetasreni is willing to reorientate Thailand’s tourism future development. “Tourism development in the first 50 years were largely dominated by maximizing economic return. The next 50 years must be dominated by minimizing the environmental impact,” said Svetasreni.
Greed has turned into mass-tourism objects, many formerly pristine areas within the kingdom. Among the victims of overdevelopment are Pattaya, which is rebranding itself for at least the third time since the early nineties into a “family” destination; Samui Island, which now faces a water shortage and can’t accommodate garbage recyclying; and areas of Phuket and Krabi. Initiatives in Thailand’s most famous resort areas have recently been launched, such as turning Samui into a Green Island or a stricter zoning for bioth Pattaya or Phuket. TAT is extremely supportive towards a more sustainable tourism. Thailand office of tourism has recently published its GREET booklet, an acronym for “Go Responsabie Ecotourism and Enjoy Thailand”. GREET is promoting responsible tourism, which is all about respect of nature, local cultures, and lifestyles.
The brochure addresses thematic tours, such as community-based tourism, especially in northern and northeastern Thailand; birdwatching; eco-friendly diving; bicycling tours; nature walks and paddling; and eco-friendly resorts. The brochure is an excellent introduction for tourists to not only discover new destinations but also to discover that the kingdom still succeded to preserve a lot of its traditional way of life. Lannna farmers villages of Mae Hong Son or Nam, bird observation in the various national parks of Petchaburi Province, old-style floating markets surrounding Bangkok, or the Thai Elephant Conservation Center of Lampang are just a few examples of GREET activities. The booklet provides a list of eco-friendly resorts with the green label, as well as travel agencies adhering to the principles of sustainable tourism.
Thailand will also need to learn to abandon the “culture of numbers” to evaluate its tourism success. “It is all about having people staying longer and spending more than just simply having more arrivals,” commented John Koldowski, PATA deputy CEO and head, Office of Intelligence Strategy Unit.
Looking at quality tourism might in fact help also Thailand to ponder possible negative effects of its ongoing political crisis. In its ITB speeach, TAT governor Svetasreni declared that Thailand was expecting the number of international tourists to grow at around 7 to 10 percent to approximately 15.0 to 15.5 million in 2010, as long as no major political crisis occurs. After two weeks of protests by the red shirts – sometimes in a spectacular but always peaceful way – the movement seems not to abate for the time being and is likley to derail tourism recovery in countries such as China or Japan, which remain very sensitive to political instability. Spending a Thai holiday in a traditional community or admiring marine life or birds look then like a wise decision.