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.
Although there is much talk of "fast track" tourist courts such as those once introduced in the Philippines and tough measures to combat the "mafia" behind the scams, it is questionable whether this ministry possesses sufficient clout. That makes it the duty of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to order other key ministries to play their part and then to check that they are doing so. A lack of leadership at the political level has long plagued this important sector of the economy. That must end.
Government agencies which should be protecting our national heritage from the ravages of greedy land developers have an appalling track record and more often seem to be in league with them. Some powerful vested interest groups even behave as though the coastal and other scenic areas are theirs alone to exploit. Such allegations are hardly a secret, nor are the deep pockets supposedly possessed by some of the developers, which could have a bearing on why so many investigations into shady land deals never seem to get anywhere.
Many of the problems are to do with rapid growth. In 1999, foreign tourist arrivals reached a record 8.3 million, partly due to favourable exchange rates which made the country a real bargain. Today, as a result of unregulated development, profiteering and the stronger baht, it is less beautiful and no longer such a good deal. Congested, litter-strewn beaches, noisy and overloaded long-tail boats, jet-ski scams, environmental pollution, a lack of waste management, poor policing and other safety concerns are not factors that attract the high-end tourists so beloved of our prime minister and her policy advisers.
It seems certain that Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak is going to have his work cut out in the months ahead. He will need all the help he can get.