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Thailand struggles to cope with deluge of tourists

BANGKOK • Thailand, land of golden temples, white-sand beaches, smiling hosts.

Or of overcrowded airports, epic traffic jams and littered seashores.

Facing a deluge of Chinese tourists that has strained its airports beyond capacity, the country is spending billions to upgrade its infrastructure, open up new islands and cities to travellers and tone down its image of cheap shopping, hotels and sex that underpinned the sector for half a century.

But the change will take years and even then may fail to keep up with soaring visitor numbers that have given the Land of Smiles a reputation for delays, overcrowding and government crackdowns.

"Our strategy was more for less, not less for more, so we invited a lot of tourists from China," said Dr Suvit Maesincee last month, when he was the minister in the Prime Minister's office. "I think in the near future, we need to change from volume to value." The government relies on tourism for 18 per cent of the economy and foreign inflows have made the baht one of the strongest performers in Asia this year, a bright spot amid weak domestic consumer demand and private investment.

While it plans to spend over US$5 billion (S$6.7 billion) to double capacity at its international airports, it also plans to raise foreign tourist numbers at a similar pace, reaching 68 million in the next decade.

Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said after a press briefing on Dec 1: "Today we're not even ready. To get us prepared within a year is not even possible."

At the heart of the upgrade, and the congestion, are Bangkok's two international airports: Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang, which are running at 40 per cent beyond designed capacity.

New terminals, facilities and another runway would let them handle 130 million passengers a year. But work will not be done until 2022 at the earliest, and the first taste most travellers get of the Thai capital is a long queue at immigration.

Spokesman Thongyoo Suphavit-tayakorn for the Association of Thai Travel Agents said: "The problem with the Thai government is they want to increase the number of visitors but they don't stop to check first if we're able to accommodate them."

Thailand's ability to draw tourists has defied the effects of a military coup and floods, among others.

The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has tripled in the past five years, to 8.8 million last year. They account for over a quarter of foreign tourists and 28 per cent of revenue, said official data.

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Naked man at Phuket airport blames erection drug

PHUKET: Six airport security guards together with Saku Police officers, tourist police officers and staff from the Phuket Airport’s tourist centre, rushed to the scene of a distraught naked man and tried to convince him to calm down on Jan 4.

Phuket International Airport issued an explanation letter on Sunday regarding a video of a distraught naked man who went berserk in the international terminal.

The South Korean passenger told authorities that he had taken too much Phizers Blue.

The airport insisted that the officers did not harm the man when arresting him.

The 27-year-old South Korean national, who holds an American passport, removed all his clothing in the international terminal while waiting to fly from Phuket to Incheon International Airport at about 11.30pm on January 4.

He was found naked in front of the toilet behind the passenger screening point.

Six airport security guards together with Saku Police officers, tourist police officers and staff from the tourist centre of the airport, rushed to the scene and tried to convince him to calm down.

However, the task was made more difficult as he started to defecate on the floor, grabbing his faeces and throwing them at the officers and staff as well as other passengers.

He also destroyed valuables belonging to the airport and the surrounding retail shops.

“To control the situation and to prevent any danger that might happen to other passengers, the officers had to arrest the man,” said the letter from Phuket International Airport.

“The officers brought him to the walkway on the north side of the terminal to avoid other passengers and managed to calm him down at the Tourist Centre on the first floor.

“When he regained his composure he admitted that he took too many Viagra pills and lost consciousness.

He accepted responsibility to reimburse for any damages that he caused.

His trip to Incheon was cancelled and he was brought to Saku Police Station for further investigation,” the letter continued.

“However, we would like to insist that the officers did not harm the man when arresting him and a strict code of conduct was followed.

All of the security officers are well trained, following international standards, and work alongside local police, tourist police, Ministry of Tourism and Sports, the AOT, consuls and embassies.”

After he was investigated at Saku Police Station, police decided that he needed further medical attention and was transported to a hospital for further examination. – The Nation/Asia News Network

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More Asian travellers expected to arrive in 2018

Industry players forecast tour packages from Asian markets to jump 25 percent in 2018 and 2019, while arrivals from European countries could dip by almost 20pc for the same period.

U Khin Zaw, advisor of the Union minister of Hotels and Tourism, told The Myanmar Times on January 3 that the change in arrival pattern was due to the Rakhine crisis.

The outbreak of violence in northen Rakhine State led to a major humanitarian crisis since August 25 last year and attracted bad press, which industry experts believe could have an impact on the tourism sector.

“We need not fear the decline in arrivals from western and European markets. If we change our tourism focus and do more tourism promotions, it will be a better situation,” he said, but added that the government needs take more initiates to attract tourists, especially from Asian countries.

“The Asian market is very close to our country, that is why the government should open up a market so they can come in easily. If this happens, the tourism sector will flourish and generate more revenue for the country,” U Khin Zaw said.

According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism’s statistics, Myanmar received 3.1 million international visitors in the first 11 months of 2017, which was 20pc higher compared to the same period in 2016.

But tourists arriving from Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States fell from 10pc to 20pc in 2017. In contrast, travellers from Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Japan and Thailand increased.

Destinations that depended on European markets such as Mrauk-U, Nagapli, Inle, Kalaw, Pintaya and Bagan would be further affected, but those which relied on Asian tourists, such as Yangon, Kyaiktiyo [Golden Rock Pagoda] and Bago were less affected, according industry experts.

Revenue from tourism could also see a dip due to the varied length of stay of different tourists groups. For instance, Asians mostly spend five days in the country but western and European travellers stay over 10 days.

The overall tourist arrival number would have increased in 2017, compared to last year but the tourism revenue could be down because travelers from Asia stay at a shorter time.

According to U Kyaw Min Oo, managing director of Equalink Travel and Tours, tour companies lost almost 75pc of their businesses compared to 2016 due to rising competition -- not solely from the Rakhine crisis.

From October to November, the company received five tour package cancellations from European travelers who were entering via the Indian border, he said.

“We have to do a lot to recover from this situation. Especially release the right news to the world and tell peopl that the real situation is different here. It will take time to stabilise,” U Kyaw Min Oo said.

The company plans to woo more backpackers and caravan tours through border crossing, if the government will open more border gates.

He also urged the government to promote Myanmar tourism in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

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