Lost Allure, The Doors Of Deception
The last few years have seen a slowing of tourist traffic into Thailand. Both circumstantial and actual evidence has pointed to a down turn in the numbers of folk wanting to spend their hard earned time off in the ‘Land of Smiles’. Why has
a country that once was on the A list of ‘must sees’ been relegated in certain quarters to a ‘maybe next year’?
At the outset I should confess that I’m no expert and my connection to the tourist trade is simply using the facilities that they provide, however here are a few thoughts on the topic that’s been taxing the mighty brains of the TAT. This submission concerns those who haven’t even visited these shores yet and are dreaming of a care free summer, or winter, of fun and adventure.
20 years ago or so Thailand could be counted on to conjure up a whole host of images. Beaches, elephants, neon naughtiness and all the clichés you can think of were there. Most of these images, if not wholly positive, provided an undeniable allure to the jaded over worked masses labouring in Farangland. Thailand was exciting, exotic and definitely different. There was, pre-internet and cable TV, little or no mention of military governments, poverty and traffic jams.
It was all full moon parties, white sand beaches, beer and hedonism mixed in with a dose of silk, traditional dance and temples. A perfect storm of temptation to all manner of tourists who fancied a bit of exotica blended with a dash of danger.
Most people strapped themselves into seat 31D from Farangland with only the haziest notion of where they were actually going and why would they? I didn’t.
In 1987 I arrived here with exactly those clichés bouncing around in my brain. Sure I’d half read the guide book, listened to the booze exaggerated stories of friends and acquaintances who had actually touched down in the exotic east and ignored the warnings of aging relatives who were convinced I’d be robbed before I got out of the arrivals lounge. I’d swallowed the siren song of the Thai Tourist Authority and the images of ‘One night in Bangkok’, hook line and sinker.
Through a combination of laziness, wishful thinking and a paucity of easily available information I touched down in Bangkok on a tidal wave of tourist and Tourist Authority images. And to be honest a great many of the other arrivals had also. We arrived in blissful ignorance. And we came, had fun, went home, got drunk and told tall tales in the pub, thereby implanting a stream of titillating possibilities into a new generation of possible visitors and so the virtuous cycle continued.
Rather obviously my thesis here is that Thailand’s image has been in a steady decline for the last 15 years and it isn’t what it was. The offshoot of this is people’s choices about where to spend their hols has been effected. Given that booze induced pub tales are probably as common now as they ever were, the vast majority of this undermining of its carefully cultivated image has been through the media.
Thailand has rarely, if ever, been ‘The Story’. I bumped into a pal of mine the other week who spends his time as the South East Asia hack for a publication back home. “Been busy?” I asked.
"To be honest if you are based in Bangers you very rarely are,” he replied “Unless something bad happens.”
In other words unless it’s a tsunami, coup or Thaksin’s arrival back home, head office isn’t interested. Essentially large news organizations don’t cover, at least in any meaningful way, Thai related news unless its catastrophic
or titillating. Thais would be devastated to know that in general most people are completely indifferent about Thailand unless it’s a real headline grabber.
The tabloids add to this with stories about sex slaves, jailed farangs and soap stars caught in Nana. Finally you have local papers with tales of local folk who have found themselves in trouble or who have had a fatal encounter. All resolutely bad.
This of course is nothing new. ‘Pedo’ teachers and Bangkok jail horror stories have been media fodder for years but herein lies the paradox. As Thailand went through its tourist boom and scores more people came, the number of gruesome and scary incidents that found their way into the papers grew in turn. Tourists came and not only bought teak frogs, went to monkey shows, partied hard and had a great time but also managed to be murdered, ’commit suicide’, get scammed and robbed in numbers that were much greater than in previous years and consequently the number of Thai horror stories that made it into the papers and on TV grew with it.
That alone I don’t believe has been enough to fatally damage Thailand’s image. A lot of the above as I say is regrettably old news but coupled with the rise of the internet we begin to see a very serious undermining of the image of Thailand that the Tourist Authority wants to project. It’s a double whammy.
Bear it in mind we are talking about image not experience. These are the pictures that bounce around in people's minds before they decide to come and will to a degree dictate whether its going to be Prague or Pattaya this year.
20 years ago it was a tourist guide or bust. Pretty much all the access to cold hard objective facts on the LOS came through the Lets Go, Lonely Planet et al coupled with unreliable tales from inebriated friends and people met in the pub…and then they invented Windows 95.
Within 3 years we all had email and the truth started to get out. If you had put Thailand into your search engine as early as ’98 thousands of sites came up. Do the same thing today and you’ll get a quadrillion. In other words the truth really was and is out there. The internet, more than any other media, has shaped the image we now have of Thailand.
The image itself is by no means wholly negative but what you tend to get is a much greater variety of information that leads people to a somewhat different image than the one the TAT would like us to see.
Websites not only talk about full moon parties but crappy guesthouses. Pattaya sites outline a gogo paradise but look closely and you can see stories of bad attitudes, short changed punters and fighting. Trekking in Chiang Mai looks great until you read about hill tribes being used like exhibits in a zoo etc. It's not only the newspaper coverage of the Tsunami and the military coup that undermines Thailand’s image but the thousands of sites with comments and blogs from those who have had both good and bad experiences. High level police corruption generally doesn’t touch us, poor bus services, taxi rip offs and uncertain closing hours certainly do.
The list goes on and on. And as it goes on the overall image we form changes i.e. it gets harder to book our flight buoyed on a tide of wholly positive images. No longer unadulterated worship but a tourist destination tinged with doubts… It's paradise, Jim, but not as we knew it.
Eventually the powers that be cottoned to the fact that their control of the stream of information had been compromised and their beloved homeland had been suffering a relentless stream of bad publicity from the Tsunami, coup coverage and murdered youngsters at resorts that were supposed to be heaven on earth. People were picking up headlines from newspapers and TV and going online to have a look only to discover that not only does Samui have a barrel load of bars, discos, diving tours and all the mod cons that a traveler loves, but also a quick click away from the tour operator’s sites we can also learn that it suffers from massive environmental damage, land grabs by the well connected in league with local mafia, none too clean beaches with, probably the most off putting element, a list of unsolved crimes against visitors as long as the shore line. Again all this is nothing new except now instead of a trip to the library to trawl through microfilmed newspapers to discover this, there is an almost unlimited quantity of info on the LOS, both good and bad from every corner of the planet a mouse click away. Pre-internet the only easily accessible info was usually from those whose job it was to promote to some extent your chosen destination and the real facts, i.e. a balanced view, were available to only the most determined or someone doing a PHD on the crime stats in SE Asia.
How therefore to counter this steady drumbeat of gloom and restore the country's battered image? Probably the most prominent effort so far has been the ‘Amazing Thailand’ campaign which has been wheeled out worldwide. Billboards from Moscow to Miami are now plastered with images of a waiing Thai woman with a back drop of the Grand Palace plus a ubiquitous elephant etc…yawningly unoriginal, but exactly what you’d expect, because that’s really all the TAT has in its arsenal, tired and over used clichés.
They do however have one ace up their sleeves, the TV ads. A greater combination of desperation, lack of imagination and hype you are unlikely to see soon. The one that sticks in my mind concerns the concierge who wais agreeably to camera and then in less than perfect English proceeds to describe his rather tiresome job and all the things you can do around Bangkok. Essentially Bangkok is rather a shit hole, and a shit hole I am extremely fond of but for none of the reasons that the TAT understandably cares to promote. We are told that Bangkok has ‘some of the best hotels in the world’. It doesn’t. There are very good hotels here but ‘best’ isn’t the superlative I or a lot of seasoned travelers would use. Anyway this is an ad so what did I expect.
Secondly we are advised to go shopping, presumably at one of the upmarket malls that now line Sukhumvit, and experience exactly the same stores we left 48 hours ago in Farangland…ok. This can all be accessed from the ‘skytrain’ which is promoted as a place to get a ‘great view’ of Bangkok and there is a shot of the racecourse on the Silom line which admittedly is a good view and has the honour of being about the one and only good view on the entire ride unless you love staring at dilapidated and filthy shophouses.
Finally we are advised to visit a temple, as our concierge friend does, ‘to relax’. My experience of temples here, and there have been a few, is to wade through a phalanx of food cards and peddlers to share a view of garishly painted concrete with about 500 other people…notice the punch line ‘to relax’.
In summary, fly 24 hours, stay in a comfortable yet unremarkable hotel, go shopping in exactly the same shops you visited at home last week and go to an overcrowded concrete wat on the skytrain. Life as you know it will never be the same.
The other ads concern the recommendations of a nice lady who is a ‘food stylist’ and her equally lame travel advice. ‘Food Stylist’ is of course the ultimate non job, yet gives the message that Thais are modern and progressive because they have food stylists!
Finally there's a guy called Kid or Dip or something who is a ‘marine recreation specialist’ and was, until this ad was dreamed up, a boat driver (far too old-fashioned). He sits wistfully alone staring out to sea telling us how nice Koh somewhere or other is. The kicker here is that it seems to be blowing a gale and overcast. Reminded me of Cornwall.
Bottom line, despite the best efforts of all the government agencies and tour operators the Thai paradise image is over. People thankfully now get the good (and there are a host of good things here) and the bad via the media, however biased or inaccurate it may be. Thailand’s image will never be the basket of clichés it once was and people are now making choices about their time off, and there are a hell of a lot, based on rather different images than before. Consequently they are deciding not to come, hence one of the reasons the numbers are dropping. Whether you feel it’s a good or bad thing probably depends on circumstance but one thing is undeniable, it’s a fact.
I thought this was a really well written submission and I agree with almost all that you say. The one thing I would disagree with, and it is only a very small thing, is the hotels. I really do believe that the best hotels in Bangkok rate well on the world stage.
I also very much agree that what the TAT promotes and what many people enjoy about Thailand are two completely different things! Given the completely different way of thinking between Westerners and Thais, I cannot see this changing in a hurry.