Thailand – Overtourism Report

Thailand is already seeing the effects of overtourism. Tourist arrivals are increasing year on year and are projected to rise to 60 million each year by 2030 as reported by the Financial Times. The Thailand Tourism Authority’s Action Plan for 2018 highlights the need for creating awareness of waste management during local festivals, promoting creative gastronomy, and building tourism networks to be environmentally conscious. Although these are great initiatives, it would be great to see an added focus on marketing lesser-known destinations and reducing strain on already crowded cities and islands through tourist dispersion. It would also be beneficial to actively discourage unethical activities such as elephant rides and work together with the Thai government to preserve mangrove forests from resort development.

Tourism Management and Government Policy

Only six months ago, the former Thai Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said “We no longer have a target for tourists. We shouldn’t go beyond the limit we can cope”. The tourism ministry had a target of increasing spending by a minimum of 5% and encouraging longer stays.
Six months later, when commenting on the 16% increase in arrivals in Dec 2017, the Tourism Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Pongpanu Svetarundra said: “We will continue to keep breaking records”. With the government stating they are targeting 37 million international arrivals in 2018 and 3 trillion baht in tourism revenue.

It seems there is some inconsistency within the Thailand Tourism Authority for managing increased arrivals and the effects of overtourism. Comments from the former minister gave hope that Thailand had realised that overtourism is and will continue to be a problem. The most recent comments from the ministry seem to contradict this.

Tourism is now worth about a 5th of the economy. “Bottlenecks are building up in destinations like Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Phuket, while infrastructure still hasn’t expanded,” Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, a Thai economist told Business Insider. ” Other destinations in Thailand must be introduced and monitored closely to support sustainable tourism”.

According to Reuters, Airports of Thailand PCL (AOT) will spend 194 billion baht ($5.5 billion) over the next 15 years to expand its six airports to handle a boom in visitors. AOT operates the six largest airports in the country that account for 90% of the air traffic in Thailand. The investment will allow the airports to handle 150 million passengers by 2030, up from 71.5 million in 2016.

Thailand needs to work on increasing investment in infrastructure that benefits locals and tourists. Much needed investment in airport infrastructure is a good sign, however, without a clear destination management plan to disperse tourists, these major cities will become even more crowded than what they already are. This negatively impacts the tourist’s experience as well as the liveability of the city for residents.

Crackdown on “zero-dollar” tourists.

The Thai authorities, with help from the Chinese authorities, are trying to crack down on so-called. “Zero dollar” tours. Essentially, Chinese tourists book these tours offering very cheap package deals to Thailand. Chinese travellers initially pay a low price for them but often find themselves forced to pay exorbitant prices for food, tours and accommodation once they arrive. According to one Thai tour agent who did not want to be named, such Chinese tourists groups are “trapped” once they come to Thailand. It is reported by the Bangkok Post that those who refuse to pay may be forced out of a bus at night or made to wait in the hotel lobby until morning. This is obviously causing problems within the Thai tourist industry as many of these tourists are returning with a bad experience from Thailand. Although it is reported these sorts of tours are still being sold, some progress has been made, the most significant being the arrest and raid on a large operator with 8000 buses.

Every effort by the Thai and Chinese authorities to weed out these operators must be made. They are giving Thailand (and other countries) a bad name while generating no income for the local Thai tourism industry since all profits are going to these operators. It is no coincidence that other countries such as Russia and Vietnam have seen a large increase in Chinese arrivals after the Thai crackdown, as these companies are looking for alternate destinations. Other countries beware!

The closure of Koh Tachai

The Thai Military Government closed Koh Tachai indefinitely in 2016 to let it rejuvenate from overcrowding and environmental damage caused by unrestricted arrivals to the island. Experts believe the beach on Koh Tachai could hold about 70 people, however, some days well over 1000 tourists lined its shores, along with food stalls and tour boats. Quoted by the Financial Times Director General of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation, Tunya Netithammakul said: “We have to close it to allow the rehabilitation of the environment both on the island and in the sea without being disturbed by tourism activities before the damage is beyond repair,”. Two deep dive sites in the Similan Islands remain open to divers and tourists.

It is promising to see the Thai Government is willing to forgo economy activity on the island to save it from the effects of overtourism. It is hoped that if or when Koh Tachai reopens, there is a strategy to ensure the island is maintained sustainably.

Screen Tourism in Thailand

The film ‘Lost in Thailand was a box office hit in Chinese and lead to a 93% increase in Chinese tourists arrivals in the first quarter of 2013. The film was set in Chiang Mai and resulted in the city being the first stop for most of these travellers. Chinese online travel agency Taobao also offered activities such as crossing a river on an elephant which related to scenes from the film.
Screen tourism can be a powerful marketing tactic. The film ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, set on the Thai island, Koh Phi Phi, introduced the world to the idyllic beaches of Thailand. The once untouched Koh Phi Phi and other islands from the film are now hubs for mass tourism, which has essentially ruined what made them special in the first place.

Screen Tourism is increasingly seen as a power resource to encourage different demographics to travel to new destinations. Tourism Authorities should work with filmmakers to create awareness and excitement for new destinations rather than promoting already popular destinations.

Tips for Travellers

Look beyond the marketing.

There is more to Thailand than Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. To experience a different Thailand, try Isan region in North East Thailand. You will be removed from all the crowds and see a more authentic Thailand.
Look into travelling to Myanmar instead, much of the country is still opening up to tourism and not suffering from hordes of tourists that Thailand is facing.

Support the locals

– Hire a local guide when possible. shopping at local stalls and eat at local restaurants.
The more money you can put back into the local community the better tourism can make a positive contribution to the economy and local lives.