As he completes a hectic third month in office, Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak is likely to think back to the leisurely existence he enjoyed as governor of Suphan Buri and wonder whether his move into high-stress politics was the right one. So far he has faced a host of controversies stemming from long-neglected problems in the tourist industry. Most recently he braved the diplomatic wrath of representatives of 14 European embassies, justifiably concerned by the lack of physical safety and excess of scams, fraud, robberies, sexual assaults, violence and other threats faced by their nationals.
Ensuring adequate safety for all tourists must take priority. The only thing that does more damage to tourism than price gouging, high crime rates and scamming in this age of social media is political unrest that manifests itself in street fighting. While Egypt and Turkey have suffered drops in visitors because of this, Thailand is now thankfully stable, although protesters would earn the gratitude of tourism promoters, retailers and apolitical shoppers if they chose an alternative venue to Ratchaprasong for their weekend rallies. Foreign tourists face enough obstacles already in getting around the capital.
The government has set a firm policy of increasing tourist numbers to levels that are barely sustainable with particular attention being paid to wooing "high-quality" tourists, but have failed to provide an effective means to achieve this end. The ministry in charge of capitalising on traditional markets and tapping into new ones, positioning the tourism industry for the launch of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 and luring back those attracted by Myanmar's appeal as a "fresh" destination is regarded as a low-ranking "non-core" one in which tourism, a major earner of foreign exchange, is inexplicably lumped together with sport.
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