Accessible Tourism

Interview with Mr. Weerasak Kowsurat, the former tourism minister of Thailand and the former chairman of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)

Question: As former Minister of Tourism and Sports in Thailand, what current tourism trends do you see and how do they affect government policy and financial institutions in Southeast Asia?

Answer: "In ASEAN countries, the economy and size of the middle class are growing, allowing for more travel. The amount of European and American travelers remains roughly the same as in the past two decades. Southeast Asia has been seen often on television since the Vietnam War and previous visitor's have had positive experiences with local people; this helps to explain the high rate of return travelers. In addition, the low cost of traveling in parts of Southeast Asia and the growth of budget airlines makes the region more attractive, than say, Southern Europe or the Mediterranean. Because of this, new regional and international airports are being built or already existing ones enlarged."

"Most governments currently lack sufficient public policies related to increasing tourism. There is no policy for the appropriate distribution of tourism income to all segments of society. With the proper distribution, this could help create programs to aid the poor and needy. Many tourists travel to Southeast Asia from the oil-rich Middle-East. These are potential investors in the country, yet there is no strategy to convert tourists to investors. In addition to all of the above, there has been a large increase in the number of travelers from African nations. With all of these people coming to Southeast Asia, can the governments ensure sufficient infrastructure to support them? How will the government prevent things such as overcrowding and destruction of natural and historic areas?"

"Banking and financial institutions in Southeast Asia need to adapt to changes in the economies. Unfortunately, they have been shown to lack the flexibility needed to support necessary industries. For instance, even though agriculture has been a mainstay of Asian countries, there has been insufficient funding for the industry. Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs provide 80% to 90% of tourism services. If financial institutions do not have the proper understanding of the emerging tourism industry, they will not be able to properly support SMEs. In return, SMEs will find it difficult to upgrade standards and services, continuing a pattern of high-risk-high-return business practices, with high failure rates."

Question: You mention above that the poor can benefit from increases in tourism. How should they be involved?

Answer: "The poor should get involved with creation of public policy. However, this is difficult. How do we get the poor to participate in policy-making? It is difficult because it involves many meetings, distributing agendas in advance, and educating and providing information to those poor in order to participate."

Question: Above, you describe a bottom-up policy-making model, but how?

Answer: "People need to see examples, both the good and the bad. Bring some to their attention and give them time to review the examples and develop suggestions. Allow them several opportunities to make suggestions. The government should invest in some of the ideas to show interest and support. This will encourage "Creative Tourism", original ideas grown locally."

Question: Do you have any examples of participatory public-policy-making in this region?

Answer: "Pattaya, Samui, and Phuket are examples in Thailand. Pattaya, a very active beach area, has had past issues with the rule of law, but is now more law abiding. By installing ‘water traffic lights' they have made water activities, like boating, safer. They have improved the sewer system, thus improving the local ecology. Local people on Samui are working on a Green Initiative for the island. Both on Samui and Phuket, they are trying to develop new ways to manage limited resources."

"Even with the three locations listed above, Thailand has not been very successful in getting the poor to participate in developing public policy, implementing it, or getting them a greater share in the distribution of income. This needs to be improved."

Question: How do digital media affect trends in tourism in this region?

Answer: "It makes planning a trip easier and shorter. Previously, people needed to have travel brochures and book with a travel agent. Today, most information can be found on the web, as well as be booked and paid for there. So, digital media saves people time."

Question: How would the poor use digital media to improve their situation, when it comes to tourism?

Answer: "The digital divide is one of the most important issues facing the poor. However, it is one of the best ways to get a message out to the world. Getting people access and familiarity with the technology is important. From there, they can advertise their advantages and the uniqueness of their destinations and attractions.

Question: The poor are looking at ways to improve their situations. Some farmers are converting their farms into hostels or tourist attractions. What is your opinion on this?

Answer: "This has happened in many countries in the world. Through digital media, local farmers and communities can see examples of how others have done this and then decide what is best for their area. The government should be supportive of this, without dictating what to do."

"Adapting to new ideas and ways takes time. There has to be room for mistakes, in order to learn and succeed. If you look at Korea's creative industries over the last 10 years, there have been many successes. Tourism and the service industry in Southeast Asia will not change overnight, but with time and energy it will gradually adapt and improve."

Question: Stiglitz discusses the combination of the service economy and creative industries in his latest book. With that in mind, what is your opinion about linking human development policies pertaining to the poor, and service-oriented policies, based on your experiences with the Ministries of Tourism, Culture, and Human Development and Security?

Answer: "40 years ago Thailand shifted from an agriculture-based economy to an early stage industrialized economy. Now we are moving a more a more service provider economy. However, farming is still a large part of our economy. Therefore, we will have to help the farmers adapt to the service industry."

Question: What should be the role of political parties regarding tourism, not only in Thailand but also other countries in the region?

Answer: : "Many governments have made it clear that travelling through their countries will be prioritized. Thailand has announced "visit Thailand year" several times. Malaysia, India, Singapore and Macau have invested heavily in marketing, showing how they welcome foreigners. I think everybody wants tourism, because it basically provides income to their country with small investment.

Source: Trendnovation Southeast Newslette

By: By Dr. Pun-Arj Chairatana,Trendnovation Southeast Newslette
When: 7/2/2014

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