There are places in the world where tourism is more of a culture than an industry. Thailand is one of them. As I reached Bangkok last week to attend World Bank's ProVention Consortium Grantees' meeting, Thailand was in a festive mood. It was the time when the nation was celebrating His Majesty King Bhumibol's 79th birthday, an occasion marked with nationwide prayers and fireworks.
In Bangkok, where streets and shop fronts are decorated with larger-than-life posters of the revered monarch, thouands of the people wearing yellow t-shirts as a mark of loyalty to the King of Thailand and his yellow flag, were thronging the streets in jubilation. Almost every public and private building in the amazingly beautiful city of Bangkok had been decorated.
The difference in this fanfare in Thailand unlike most of other places is that all these festivities are not stage managed nor are the large portraits part of King's PR exercises as is the case with such hoardings in many other parts of the world. People tell you that all this was done by Thailand's common people as part of their allegiance to their king who has given them a country which has progressed well and fast, at least by Asian standards.
Amidst all this, what strikes the first-time visitor to this country is the culture of hospitality, discipline and people's humble character. As from a taxi driver to the shopkeeper you get very honest and genuine help with unending smiles, one simply feels having been killed with kindness. The culture of discipline is something which struck me the most an atmosphere where you feel not being taken for a ride or being mislead.
When in September a military coup ousted the elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was widely accused of corruption and abuse of power I was expecting life to be a little different in Thailand. But that was not the case. Life in Thailand is normal and in spite of the ouster of the elected prime minister people adore King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is also the world's longest-reigning monarch.
Bangkok is bustling with life and of course a sea of tourists. And why do tourists throng this place in millions? What strikes a visitor is the cheap rates at which high-quality services are available in the country. It just costs 60-70 Indian rupees to hire a Corolla taxi to travel for more than 7 kms. Imagine the Rs 350 our taxis charge us from the Srinagar airport to the city centre! Likewise, hotel rates are stunnignly cheap. It hardly costs 3000 Indian rupees for get a double-bed room in a 5-star hotel with a free breakfast in the centre of Bangkok! A three-hour cruise boat ride in Bangkok's Chao Phraya river with a dinner costs just 600 Indian rupees.
Thailand has embraced a philosophy of what they call " self-sufficiency economy model", and this concept favours a "quality over quantity" approach under which equivalent attention is paid to ensuring both sustainability and grassroots benefits from tourism. It is really not about 5-star tourism. They emphasise the word "grassroots benefits" Thai officials go places across the world and sell their products in their own innovative ways. While undertaking marketing campaigns the Government pays high attention towards rehabilitation of popular attractions which have been affected by wear-and-tear due to the large influx of visitors, both foreign and domestic, over the years. It is not like that tourists will die for want of a toilet like in our case in our public places and our highways leading to tourist spots!
A Thai tourism official told me that they do not look at the 'hardware' part of the tourism industry alone, they focus on boosting 'software', including training courses to upgrade human resources development to ensure service delivery and boost visitor satisfaction. Imagine what are our indicators of "visitor satisfaction". I am sure the way we generally treat our tourists is the recipe for turning them away for good. In Thailand hotels are also encouraged to step up their commitment to environmental preservation. And imagine what we do? Do we have any focus on "software" part of our tourism or environemental compliances?
As 80% of all visitor arrivals to Thailand enter through Bangkok, the country has made a state-of-the-art airport which is unique in itself in the region second only to Hong Kong probably. The services and the systems at the airport are par perfection. I was surprised to hear that the country had so far hosted 13.80 million international arrivals in 2006 and the target is 15 million in 2007.
In January September 2006, arrivals from the UK alone the biggest contributor to tourist flow in this country – at Bangkok International Airport grew 8.54% to 484,268. Total arrivals to Thailand in that period were 7,188,802, up 17.92% over the same period of 2005, with strong increases in convention delegates and repeat visitors.
In 2005, UK visitors are estimated to have generated tourism income of about GBP 461 million at 2006 rates up 4.30% over 2004 based on an average length of stay 12.6 days.
But amidst all this tourist boom, the country has not forgotten its roots. The officials and the country's King make it is point to say that the country does not see tourism as the panaccea for all facets of its life. The country recognises the philosophy and work that upon that poverty can best be eradicated through improved health, steady income through honest work, and knowledge and understanding through education. That is the reason human resources development and making tourism reach out to people outside cities and to remote locations is one of the top priorities.
That is one reason the many royal celebrations held this year will be rounded off with the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek 2006, one of the world's most spectacular floral exhibitions, now under way in the northern city of Chiang Mai, until Jan 31, 2007. Floral and horticultural exhibits from 32 nations are on display, with a total of more than 2.5 million plants, including more than 50,000 orchid plants of a thousand varieties, the most extensive displays of orchids ever seen. That is one way Thai people are taking their visitors to their countryside.
No wonder the United Nations has recognized Thailand's King's life-long efforts with a first-of-its-kind award for outstanding dedication and achievements in human development.
Who says monarchs do not make good visionaries?
(The columnist can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)