Tourism Realities

Although many Thai people are interested in tourism in the country, most have an inaccurate stereotype of the major types of tourism. The stereotype is of westerners arriving en famille (or else as backpackers) and stumbling around the Land of Smiles marveling at the temples, the happy faces, the beaches and the tom yum gung. In fact, the number of tourists from Asian countries greatly exceeds those coming from the west and, economically, are much more important. Until quite recently, Chinese tourists coming here were subject to the ‘zero dollar tourism’ – which is now thankfully banned. Under such a trip, tourists paid nothing at all but their experience was to be taken from tourist trap to tourist trap while salespeople tried to make them buy things (e.g. birds’ nests and shark fins). The importance of Chinese visitors in particular is highlighted by a story today about a new direct flight from Guangzhou to Phuket, which will bring thousands of tourists direct to the island resort – away, that is, from the widely peddled view that Chinese will come as part of tourist groups on package holidays and can be palmed off with pretty much any level of (dis)service. More than ten thousand Chinese couples will visit annually to get married. There is also the increasingly well-known phenomenon of the Russian tourists, who are establishing their own areas and means of entertainment. More than 640,000 Russians stayed in hotels in Pattaya last year, which represents the largest single cohort from any country – in addition to Russian restaurants (and I suppose Russian songs in karaoke places), there is a locally-managed Russian language television station and newspaper and the number of facilities is set to grow. Whether or not all Russian tourists are principally interested in a beach-hotel type holiday is not clear but there seem to be enough who are to make them a segment of the tourism market worthy of attention. Yet few if any Thai people are learning Russian or any Slavic language – all very well but the benefits of this tourist market will leave the country, of course.

Tattoo Sir? Madam? Subtle Fiery Dragon, Perhaps?

The tourism industry may have been disastrously damaged by the PAD Disaster and the whole economy in serious trouble but at least the tattoo industry is holding up. There are supposed to be around 500 tattoo parlours across Thailand and they offer a wide range of colourful and exotic designs. Tattoos are particularly popular among foreigners, it is said, who want to have a permanent reminder of their visit to Thailand and for whom ….. (three obvious jokes deleted here) is just not enough.

Tattooing has a long history in Thailand – it is quite common to see men in particular tattooed across the neck, chest or legs with complex designs in just one colour. These tattoos involve sacred or magical formulae which are believed by some to confer special powers, like protection from bullets or invisibility to spirits and the like and these were made using the ubiquitous piece of sharp bamboo. There is also an association with gangsterism but that is not necessarily the case. These days, of course, even otherwise respectable young women sport tattoos on various parts of their bodies (so I have been told, I have not seen for myself, obviously).

The implication is obvious: want to support the Thai economy? Then immediately go out and have a dragon tattooed all across your back. Or something similar.

Poor Suffer Most from PAD

The courts have ruled that it is not defamatory to call someone either a criminal or a ‘ghost.’ Let’s try it out, shall we? So, you khun P….. Right.

A study by the UTCC forecasting unit projects losses of between 154-215 billion baht from the airport losses – although the situation is so volatile these numbers are subject to radical revision, I would have thought. More concretely, the tourism industry is set for enormous job layoffs in the first quarter of next year. Tourism was already very weak this year, given the continuing PAD problem, high oil prices earlier in the year and the ongoing financial crisis. Now it has plunged to disastrous depths.

Jobs in the tourism industry tend to be low-skilled and low-paid. They include hotel maids, drivers, restaurant waiting staff, travel agent assistants and the like. Anyone who has travelled around Thailand will know the importance of labour migration – people move from one part of the country (most commonly Isan) to another to find work. This leads to some equalization of supply and demand of jobs but also has the effect of suppressing wages overall because the migrants lack protection in the workplace and are often obliged to accept low wages, even below minimum wage levels. It was in part to help counter labour migration that the Thai Rak Thai administration introduced regional development programmes such as OTOP and village loans.

Why? Well, once the people lose their jobs, they must either return to rural poverty and under-employment (research showing that the unique kindness of Thai people in the aftermath of the 1997 crisis somehow overcame this problem has been contested, not least by me) or else will be vulnerable and more likely to enter into ‘risk-taking behaviour ‘ which, I hope, I do not have to spell out.

These are the people who most directly suffer from the far right PAD movement’s selfish and self-important actions –but then we already know what the right wing thinks about the poor in Thailand.

Crisis of Culture

Culture Minister Worawat Ua-apinyakul recommended that various well-known charms should be made into good luck items and put up for sale. Harmless enough, surely? It sounds like a reasonable thing for people to do around the country, in the same way that OTOP helps to promote local products and boost local incomes while discouraging migration.

Well, it rather shows what kind of a situation we are in here in terms of the media’s (at least the English language newspapers) and the elite (as represented by various ‘academics’) continual attacks on the democratically-elected government. In the Bangkok Post today, a piece describes the minister as being ‘on the defensive’ after various critics had attacked the plan. He is reported as pointing out:

“…the folklore must be explained in detail and buyers be educated, so they do not become superstitious or be misled by false beliefs, he said. Each locality had its own story to tell and visitors would be interested to know about it. Given the problems with the tourism industry caused by the PAD mob and the global economy, any kind of promotion must be sensible. Yet the story goes on with this:

Academic Srisak Wallipodom said the idea of marketing the charms and selling them as souvenirs was a joke and Mr Worawat had humiliated himself for floating it.

The minister had shown that he has no understanding of culture. If the idea came to fruition, it would lead to a crisis of culture, Mr Srisak said.”

This is extraordinary – I have no idea who Khun Srisak is or what claim to being an academic he might have (and neither does the Bangkok Post let me know). But what can this crisis of culture be? Why the talk of ‘humiliation’? Nonsense, of course and not the usual way that academics talk in public – we follow Plato in understanding that wise people are wise because they realize how little they know and hence hedge our words. Most foreigners who come here like to buy souvenirs and many buy religious and cultural icons as souvenirs already. So what motivates Khun Srisak to speak so intemperately (assuming he is accurately reported)?

Elephants Preferable to Rottweilers

A tragedy in Nakhon Ratchasima when two Rottweilers killed a two-year old girl and seriously wounded her mother. The dogs belonged to the Dutch man who was the father and husband but was mostly working away in his home country. It is not clear why he thought it was a good idea to inflict these dangerous animals on his young family.

Of course, as I have mentioned before, we see few animals in Bangkok these days – a few birds, some scraggy squirrels and the endless soi dogs (the taxi caught one of them a good one on the noggin the other day – ha). Well, yesterday there was an elephant in the soi, with a couple of people leading him around and collecting money to feed him with bananas and whatever else might be available. It is nice to see the elephant and remember that we share the country with these lovely looking creatures. Of course, it is illegal now to bring elephants into the city and many people complain that doing so is cruel and so on.

There are still several thousand elephants in the country and keeping them all going is becoming a serious problem. At a recent conference, a paper was given about the economics of feeding the elephants – they do after all eat an enormous amount. The speaker concluded that, now that there was no need for them in the construction or logging industries, that it would probably be necessary to find some role for them in tourism so that they can help earn their own food. There is not enough available habitat for them to survive on their own. Unfortunate, but there it is – playing football is the future for the tuskers, apart from those one or two who actually make artwork (paintings) which are then sold – yes, it is true.