Is Thailand buckling beneath the load of tourists?
WE could well and truly be living in Thailand’s golden era of tourism.
Numbers are rising at a rapid pace and a higher number of luxury travelers are making their way to the Kingdom to record increased overseas spend.
Last year, Bangkok also beat out London to be the world’s most visited city in the MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index.
MasterCard chief economist Yuwa Hedrick-Wong told Reuters:
“Bangkok is in a strong position to be the top destination city for a long time.”
“There’s the value for money, especially for visitors coming through high-income countries.”
Reduced visa fees and tourism campaigns have also catapulted in a sturdy rise.
A top official said numbers are expected to rise to 60 million each year by 2030. However, in this case, it could be too much of a good thing for Thailand.
Strain on infrastructure
Considering the tourism industry makes up a fifth of the Thailand’s economy, the industry is “starting to get a little bit worried”.
Tourism Ministry permanent secretary Pongpanu Svetarundra told The Financial Times, “The congestion will be more and more. This is why it’s the most opportune moment to talk of upgrading, investment, and expansion of existing facilities.”
Presently, there are concerns of airports and motorways feeling the strain as more and more visitors stream into Thailand.
The Financial Times said the tourist boom was reflective of the growing middle class in China as Chinese make up almost half of the rise of international visitors in Thailand.
The publication also suggested the steady rise in Chinese tourists is partly due to a 2012 road trip film called Lost in Thailand, which gained cult status in China.
However, the surge in numbers – whether from China or otherwise – allows Thailand’s ruling military junta to line their pockets as local infrastructure and the environment take a toll.
Pongpanu said, “If we don’t do anything, we will get into trouble.”
Major Thai cities are said to be crumbling amid the influx and are not yet equipped to receive such numbers.
World Bank economist Kiatipong Ariyapruchya told Reuters, “Bottlenecks are building up in destinations like Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Phuket, while infrastructure still hasn’t expanded.”
He said new destinations inside Thailand “must be introduced and monitored closely to support sustainable tourism”.
Sunsanee Fongcharoen, a Bangkok Airways passenger service supervisor at Suvarnabhumi Airport, said bookings could increase two-fold during peak season.
She said there could often be “passenger build-up at counter check-in areas and at immigration”.
To offload the weight, Airports of Thailand PCL has plans to spend US$5.5 billion over the next 15 years to introduce airport reforms. Bangkok Post reported 10 regional airports and 26 city airports will see improvements in the future.
The report said forecast arrivals at Suvarnabhumi were expected to double from 45 million tourists while Don Mueang could handle some 40 million passengers, up from a current 30 million.
Air traffic in Asia Pacific is expected to surpass that of the US and Europe, and Thailand is at the forefront of that growth.
It’s not just airports that are feeling the pressure – islands across the country have also fallen victim to poor planning and unrestrained development of hotels.
Last year, authorities ordered the shutdown of 10 popular dive sites amid fears of extreme coral bleaching.
Despite Thailand’s lagging economy, the move was described as a “rare move to shun tourism profits to protect the environment”.
Cap on tourists?
While airport and infrastructure reforms are important, it’s unclear whether Thailand will resort to limiting visitors.
In the case of the ever-popular Maya Beach on Phi Phi Island, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) found the number of tourist boats – that shuttle in up to 10,000 tourists daily – were compromising the health of corals and the waters.
According to Bangkok Post, the department will reportedly close Maya Beach every year from July to September to allow the ecological system time to recover.
The report also suggested introducing measures to limit the number of boats and tourists on the island.
Noppharat Thara Beach-Phi Phi Islands National Park chief Sarayuth Tanthien told the media the department the measures might become a reality.
The Bangkok Post report added the DNP can eventually start using resource management in Khao Yai National Park, or natural sites such as Doi Chiang Dao in Chiang Mai to limit the number of visitors.
For preservation, the once-congested islands of Koh Khai Nok, Koh Khai Nui and Koh Khai Nai off the east coast of Phuket have enforced restrictions on many water activities and facilities such as sun loungers and daybeds.
While the island remains open to visitors, the sleep-like state of the islands allows for the marine ecosystem to repair.
Meanwhile, other sites in Asia have taken steps to control the flow of tourists, including Bhutan, known for its breathtaking mountainous landscape and Buddhist heritage.
Although the region has been welcoming foreign visitors since the ’70s, it has a strict policy of “high-value, low-volume tourism” to ensure the preservation of both the environment and culture.
The Han Sang Doong cave in Vietnam – the biggest in the world spanning 200m high, 150m wide, and 5km long – is also known to control its numbers.
To preserve the natural formations of the cave, tours are limited and authorized only by a single operator, Oxalis Adventure Tours.
While surrounding local businesses may take a hit if numbers are limited, the benefits of tourism revenues must be carefully balanced with the prospect of losing some of Thailand’s most important ecological sites.