Saturday, 30 August 2014

Thailand Tourism under the Junta

Even those people with a short memory will recall the military takeover in 2006 in Thailand. It followed a similar pattern to the present coup (2008). In that instance the establishment agitated for several months to oust the popular Thaksin government before the military finally stepped in to prevent the country falling into supposed ‘anarchy’.

It is a fair guess that the latest coup will continue to mirror the last one: namely, that the military will hold power for about a year before installing a royalist and democrat government. This government will fall at the first election (despite a raft of electoral reforms) and some form of Shinawatra government will seize power much to the chagrin of the Bangkok elite.

No doubt the present junta are aware of history, and are more determined than ever to stop history repeating itself. The electoral commission is looking to change voting boundaries to weaken the northern stronghold of Pheu Thai. At the same time they are conducting a vigorous enquiry into the rice pledging scheme to discredit key members of the last government.

The military government are also addressing the huge gap that exists between the written law and the way the law is applied. It is this grey area that has been a breeding ground for corruption and scams. This grey area exists in virtually every developing country; but Thailand now has a robust and growing economy. The country has aspirations to make it into the league of countries such as Singapore and Mexico that in many ways are the equal of their ‘developed’ counterparts.

MPs are being asked to declare their assets. Road rules are being enforced. Buildings that have been erected without planning permission are being torn down. The alcohol curfew is being enforced in pleasure centres such as Pattaya. The rule about foreign ownership of land is being scrutinised. Foreign nationals doing repeated visa runs to neighbouring countries to work illegally are being denied entry. Taxi drivers in Koh Samui are being forced to use meters. Those renting jet skis are under pressure to stop fleecing tourists. The list goes on. The message is that Thailand is cleaning up its act, and undesirables beware – they will be found and dealt with.

You don’t need to believe in conspiracy theories to see how many of these measures will ruin the income streams of important people in the country who benefit from bribes, drugs, illegal employment, human trafficking and cheating tourists. The military will do well to manage itself when surely several of its own ranks are involved in the corruption. Meanwhile the Shinawatras remain in the wings promising a return to a government that turns a blind eye to a wide range of rackets.

Thailand Authority of Tourism (TAT) has been busy in its own inept way to put a positive spin on events happening in Thailand. They have consistently downplayed the drop in tourist numbers and have never mentioned that those who did visa runs would also be part of previous dubious statistics. Their latest drive is ‘Thainess Year’. They are also hoping to lure the Chinese and Europeans back with 60 day visas. The incompetence of TAT has always made those who know more than a little about Thailand laugh. They seem the apotheosis of ‘Thainess’ as perceived by many non-Thais.

Many ‘respectable’ tourists and ex-pats applaud the junta’s efforts to curb the prostitution areas in Bangkok, Koh Samui, Phuket and Pattaya; to regulate the bars; and to deport foreign criminals. The high spending and short stay tourists that the authorities want to encourage are not as numerous as TAT imagined. They are the first to cancel holidays where there is political disturbance. This minority of visitors to Thailand have always borne the brunt of the unfair dual pricing system. Thailand is looking more expensive, less safe and less inviting than other countries in the region with beaches, luxury hotels, temples and shopping malls.

Such are market forces that the reduced tourist numbers mean that bargains are to be found in Thailand – rooms in 3 and 4 star hotels can be had for a big discount. Villas can be rented cheaply, and for those with a penchant for risk, villas can be bought for big reductions.

Backpackers over the last 10 years have consistently got a worse deal. For the same money a few years ago they would have got a room in a guest house or a bungalow, now they can only afford a dorm bed. Weed is still 500 Thai Baht but the bags are getting smaller – it is nearly cheaper to ‘smoke’ in Europe than in Thailand for those not buying large amounts. With the border visa being reduced to 15 days the average backpacker is discouraged from staying long in the Kingdom. They do Bangkok and the Full Moon Party and then are off.

Thailand is often called ‘The Land of the Free’. It is hoped that the worst examples of cronyism, nepotism, corruption and vote rigging are addressed; at the same time the profits to be had from tourism are wrested from the hands of the few and a better balance of high-end and backpacker tourism is established. If tourists were ripped off less, fined less, and small local businesses were allowed to compete with big tourist companies on a more level playing field there is a good chance that TAT could go back to the irrelevance it has always been. It is also necessary for voters in Thailand to cast their ballot responsibly and bring in politicians not bent on making a personal fortune and destroying the opposition.