Promoting Pattaya in Europe
Between 2010 and 2013, tourism in Thailand has increased about 10% a year, but met with a downturn in 2014. The main reason for this downturn is generally attributed to the political disorder and the subsequent military coup (which took place May 22, 2014). The drop hit foreign tourists unevenly, concerning mainly Russians and Chinese, Russians being indeed also victims of the fall of the rouble. In November, I heard the President of PBTA (Pattaya Business and Tourism Association) say that Pattaya needed to get the European market back, and I recently read in Pattaya Today (16-31/12/2014) that the Tourism Minister "wants to boost the number of high-spending or 'value' customers and to change the negative stereotypes which continue to haunt some Thai cities and beach resorts." The Minister thinks that Pattaya still suffers from its reputation as a "questionable nightlife destination" and wants to rebrand the city as a world-class sports and family center. The City Hall seems to be on the same line, and has tried to attract international sporting events and to increase the offer of facilities for families.
The attempt to change Pattaya's image is surely not new. There are continuous marketing campaigns, there are contacts made with tour operators trying to present an image of Pattaya corresponding to the one the Minister of tourism wants to promote, and there is promotion made in the city itself. But are such campaigns sufficient to change the "questionable nightlife" image, i.e. the negative stereotype? Such is the question I will try to answer here, which will lead me to talk about how to promote Pattaya in Europe.
Is Pattaya changing?
Concerning the “questionable” aspect of Pattaya, the image has to be distinguished from the reality (even if both are linked in fact). How can we evaluate the real changes, and where are they? Surely by walking around Pattaya, we can see changes over the last few years. For example, in the newer parts of the city (Pratumnak Hill, Jomtien Second Road, or Wong Amat) the proportion of bars is clearly lower than in the older Pattaya center. In other words, as Pattaya grows, it gets less "questionable" (although this may not have much to do with the rebranding efforts). Of course, we would like to measure such changes more precisely. Among the indicators we could use is the number of gogo bars, or – say – the total number of bars, or rather the evolution of the proportion of bars to the population over the recent years. The idea here is that if the proportion of bars is increasing faster than the population, the change the authorities expect is unlikely to happen and their efforts at changing the city look compromised. Unfortunately such numbers are not available (although the District has them). Thus, we have to look at other indicators of the real changes derived from the actions of the City Hall and of continuous rebranding promotions. One of such indicators could be the number of prostitutes, but they are not recorded and estimates vary greatly (and so does the number of bar girls). Another possible indicator is the ratio of male tourists over female ones. As I mentioned in another article, Pattaya has about 15% more male tourists than female ones, a discrepancy which is most probably linked to the greater interest of males for the gogo bars and related activities. It would be nice to know how this percentage has evolved over years. Unfortunately hotels do not track tourist by their gender, or, if they do, they do not report such data. To make a long story short, it is very difficult to have an objective account of precisely how the “questionable” aspect of Pattaya is really improving and how fast.
The image and the “negative stereotype”
First of all, the only direct way to properly test the image of Pattaya is to make surveys in different countries, asking people what is their impression / opinion of Pattaya. Yet there would be validity problems (do people really say what they think?), not to mention problems due to the difficulty of making intercultural comparisons. Further, such surveys would have to be done over the years and would be costly for a questionable (no quotes here) result. Thus, we will take a deviated way to study the current image of Pattaya. But first let’s have a look at this image and its meaning.
The Tourism Minister speaks of a “negative stereotype”. Let me just remind that a stereotype is a wrong idea about a group or a category of people, often the generalization to the whole group or category of an attitude or behavior of a minority. (The notion of stereotype is close to the idea of prejudice.) The stereotype regarding Pattaya – or rather the people in Pattaya – concerns two categories of people, prostitutes on the one hand – and, by extension, the girls associated with them, like waitresses, maids, and other workers – and, on the other hand, the customers of prostitutes – by extension male tourists, locals and expats. These categories of people are large enough to reverberate on the city itself, sometimes called the "sin city", a qualification which, incidentally, refers to religion. For the purpose of clarification, I should add that saying, for example, that “some girls – or even many girls – in Pattaya are prostitutes” is not a stereotype (nor a prejudice). In turn, saying that “all girls in Pattaya are prostitutes” is a stereotype. Thus, to say that Pattaya is a city with quite a bit of prostitution is (probably) giving the city a bad image, but it is not a stereotype. Strictly speaking, the problem of Pattaya is more the bad image of prostitution, particularly in the West, than a stereotyped view of the city.
Strategies to deal with a bad image
There are mainly two types of strategies to fight against bad images: to address the problem and to counter it. Let's start with the latter. Pattaya being linked to sex and prostitution in the minds of many people, countering this image consists in associating Pattaya with things (ideas, feelings, activities) directly opposed to this image. In a way, rebranding Pattaya as a family resort is one such countering option. Obviously, advertising sports (yachting, golfing, racing, for example) can also tend to change the image. Similarly, putting emphasis on the temples, or on Buddhism, would serve the same purpose. (In turn, stressing massage parlors and spas would not have the same effect.) But of course, if such advertising appears implausible or false, it would lose its impact. For example, advertising Pattaya as a family resort may seem farfetched to many tourists, and even potential tourists, and may fail to give a convincing image. Anyway, no such countering strategy will erase the bad image, it will just fade it. Indeed the “questionable” reputation of Pattaya is partly true and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Note that a kinky reputation is not bad as such, as long as it is not the prominent feature of the image. Amsterdam, for example, has such reputation, which is yet not damageable to the city. Amsterdam has many attractive sites, monuments, museums, beer bars, restaurants — not to mention coffee shops — which, together with the red light zone, give the image of a kind of “free city”.
The other type of strategies, when dealing with prejudices, is to treat the problem directly, and to give proper information about it. For example, when and where questions are raised, the tourism authorities could explain how prostitution works in Thailand, mention that there are no prostitution networks, no acknowledged pimps, no mafia, give numbers about delinquency among prostitutes, and so on. Such information could be channeled towards tourist guides for example. Being open about prostitution is also a way of minimizing it, if not normalizing it. Of course, it has to be done delicately, and not within promotion campaigns proper. Thai authorities could even go further in dealing frontally with the “negative stereotypes”. For example, they could circulate information comparing the proportion of prostitutes in different countries (showing that Thailand is not at the top of the list), they could also foster discussions focused on the difference between prostitution in Thailand and in the West in the proper forums and media, and so on. Although it is not the responsibility of the Thai ministry of tourism to open the eyes of Westerners on traditional societies, it could be more reactive against the prejudice they are facing. Such undertakings would also facilitate the advertising of Pattaya in giving it a more coherent image. Yet I have to say that, although this strategy deals more directly with the “negative stereotype”, I do not see much interest for it from Pattaya authorities, as they are trying to hide data about prostitution. They probably tend to think that Westerners are a bit hysterical about prostitution – which has a grain of truth – and that it is better not to talk about it.
A third strategy, although unrealistic for Pattaya, would be a total rebranding including a name change. That would be a rather extreme undertaking, which would only be justified if the image was very bad almost everywhere, and deteriorating, which is not the case.
The image of Pattaya in Europe
If the PBTA wants to get the European market back, as they claim, they will have to deal with the negative stereotype. One reason why some European tourists avoid Pattaya is that they fear that they themselves will be associated with prostitution. In other words, the image of Pattaya is so untidy and so sticky that they fear it will stain them. I should mention that prostitutes, at least in the West, tend to be considered as not having a job like any other. They are not seen as independent workers or entrepreneurs, for example, they are seen as exploited or as forced to do the job out of poverty. If prostitution was not seen in such negative light, there would be no problem of "questionable nightlife", prostitutes would just be providing a service and responding to the legitimate demand of respectable customers. Note that they tend to be seen as more legitimate workers in North European countries than in the South of Europe. In Germany, for example, unemployment office civil servants may suggest to some jobless girls to work as a prostitute in a Frauenhaus.
Now, if there are differences in the attitudes towards prostitution between North and South European – say latin – countries, which are in fact Catholic countries, it should be reflected in the proportion of tourists coming to Pattaya. Below, we have the number of tourists coming to Pattaya (2013) per 1,000 inhabitants.
What we see here, quite strikingly, is that South European inhabitants come much less to Pattaya than North Europeans. Since this difference is repeated, with only small variations, over the recent years (I tested 2010 – 2013), and since there are no good geographic, demographic, linguistic, political or even economical reasons to explain such magnitude of difference between North and South Europe, one is led to think of a cultural difference. The most plausible hypothesis here concerns the different attitudes towards prostitution, attitudes which are largely bred by Catholicism in the South of Europe and by Protestantism in the North. Indeed in Spain, Italy, France, and Belgium, Catholicism is the predominant religion, whereas this is not the case of the other countries in the graph (with the exception of Switzerland which is mainly Catholic, yet with a widespread Protestant “ethic”).
The central question for the Thai tourism authorities in their willingness to get a greater share of the European market, is where to promote Pattaya and how. Is it better to promote the city in countries where few people have already come to Pattaya, or in countries where more people have already come? The answer is not straightforward; it depends mainly on the attitudes towards Pattaya in each country. Without such information, I would go with my hypothesis that the difference between North and South of Europe is mainly a question of attitude towards prostitution. If this is true, promoting Pattaya in the South of Europe should deal more directly with the problem, i.e. the bad image, whereas it could be promoted more traditionally in the North. But I would also look into the evolution of each market over time, which could lead to seminal questions. For example, from 2010 to 2013, the German market of tourists in Pattaya has diminished, and so did the Finnish and the Belgian ones, whereas during the same period, the Swiss, Danish, and Norwegian markets have increased well beyond the 10% increase average. The reasons for these changes should be clarified if one wanted to make a country specific promotion.
Yet, this is not enough. Any approach to the European market, be it global or country specific, should be based on a clear idea of what kind of a city Pattaya is, and of the identity one wants to project. Advertising Pattaya as a family resort is mainly meant to counter a bad image, it does not reflect Pattaya’s true identity. The projected identity should be close to the “true” one and include the “easy sex” reputation in a positive way. It should also speak to the local people, particularly those who are in contact with tourists. An example of an inappropriate identity is the “amazing Thailand” image, which does not speak to the local people : they do not know exactly what foreigners will find “amazing” in Thailand, and this tag does not tell them how to behave with people who expect Thailand to be “amazing”. “Friendly”, for example, would have been better in this respect. Pattaya still has to find its identity, an identity that rings true, that seduces tourists and makes sense for locals. Promoting Pattaya in Europe would be easier as it would address the bad image problem, since, again, the stereotype would be nicely included in it. Incidentally, the metaphor of a “vibrating” city – which seems to be liked by many hotel promoters and real estate dealers – should be given a good brainstorming session, the results of which should be tested on samples of tourists. Not addressing the bad image problem, or taking an oblique way, might be ok for the Asian market, but it is not for the European one. Europeans are more straightforward than Asians, and tend to value and trust people who tell them the truth more than Asians would, indeed a characteristic of individualism.
In my observations watching Thailand promote itself over the years, as well as different parts of the country push hard for new markets, it seems to take 2 – 3 years before you start seeing a return….so if they push hard in Europe now, we might not see the effect of increased tourism from that market for a few years.