There are more tourists now than ever before, thanks to the explosive growth of the Chinese outbound market and the ever-growing middle class worldwide. International tourist arrivals grew by a remarkable 7% in 2017 to reach 1.3 billion, according to UNWTO, and is projected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030.
But with record visitor numbers, many destinations and communities in Asia are starting to see the toll of tourism, and along with it resentment and backlash to the problems that unrestrained growth brings. The forced six-month closure of Boracay after Philippine President Duterte labeled it a “cesspool” reflects the pressure Southeast Asia’s once-idyllic islands are now under. Thailand’s Maya Bay will be temporarily closed for four months each summer to allow for rehabilitation.
The rising tide of plastic rubbish on Bali’s beaches has become a major concern for visitors and residents on the famed Indonesian island. For too long, long-term planning and development was sorely lacking in many destinations, as governments were caught up in the aggressive pursuit of tourism growth and numbers, pointed out Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).
“A major trend in tourism has been that every government, every country in the world has been focused on demand and promotion. Tourism worldwide is mostly promotion, promotion, promotion, and in some cases nothing else,” Durband remarked. In the past 18 months, media attention on the problems surrounding mass tourism in such iconic destinations as Venice, Barcelona and Iceland has intensified worldwide, driving a greater awareness of overtourism and prompting calls to action in the global travel community. American Tourists Now Outnumber Icelandic Residents “Finally, the world is waking up to the fact that we can’t put money only to promotion but into development and management; we have to measure visitor satisfaction and also community satisfaction,” Durband said.
Venice, Italy, saw protests due to overcrowding and over tourism “Governments were asleep, they didn’t see it coming. Governments typically put money into just promotion, anything into development were just small. Suddenly there’s an awareness as it hits them in the face as they realise they need to put resources into planning.
And because they are all so late into the game, we’re going to see more pain for a while until they learn to manage better and disperse the visitors,” he added. Masaru Takayama, president of Spirit of Japan Travel and founding chair of Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) is heartened that there is “positive movement on the discussion level” for tourism to be more sustainable but concrete actions and awareness have yet to take root among the government sectors and mainstream tourism industry.
Thailand will likely be the envy of many destination marketing bodies, going by traditional tourism performance markers. With the exception of the coup year in 2014, Thailand’s inbound arrivals have been on an upward trajectory in the last decade, with the Chinese market a major driving force to push its annual tourist numbers to over 35 million in 2017, equivalent to half of the country’s population. But Tanes Petchsuwan, Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) deputy governor for marketing communication, acknowledged that a different game plan is now needed – and it’s no longer about pursuing numbers. “Increasing visitors is not a challenge – we’re already very good at it,” Tanes remarked. “But the challenge now is how to balance 35 million for different markets, segments, etc, to ensure that they’re traveling at the right time, to the right places and delivering true benefits to communities,” he continued, emphasizing that dispersal of tourists is critical.
Of the opinion that NTOs should give greater weight to social and environmental responsibility in their destination marketing, Tanes revealed that the TAT takes into account the carrying capacity as well as the market segment that each destination is suited for. But when asked how Thailand could cope with the influx of visitors from China, which alone contributed onequarter of Thailand’s inbound arrivals last year and is still a growing market, Tanes is confident the changing preferences of Chinese travelers will soon put such concerns to rest.
“Mass tourism will become history in the future,” Tanes stated. Major infrastructure boost needed says Thailand’s Tourism Sports Ministry permanent secretary Pongpanu Svetarundra Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Ministry permanent secretary Pongpanu Svetarundra says that “Thailand has under-invested in facilities when considering the country’s aggressive growth in tourists,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the Asean-Korea Tourism Investment Seminar 2018 in Seoul.
“If we continue to delay investment to develop the country’s infrastructure – such as investment for the third phase of Suvarnabhumi Airport, Laem Chabang Port phase three, high-speed trains, etc – the country will not have the capacity to serve the expanded number of tourists visiting the country,” he said.
To speed up infrastructure development, the country must open up investment in projects to the private sector under public-private partnerships, and also make it easier for foreign investors to expand their investments in infrastructure or tourist businesses by offering them incentives, Pongpanu said. Thailand also needed to relax some of its rules that limit the opportunity for foreign investment in the country’s service sector, which now limits investment only to local investors, he said. This would help the country to improve services for foreign tourists.
The country, meanwhile, needed to improve skills among service sector workers, particularly language skills, Pongpanu said, noting that many local people lack the ability to communicate with foreign tourists visiting Thailand. As well, the expected strong growth of the tourism business called for developing the nation’s innovation-based industries and digital transformation to meet the demand from foreign tourists, he said.
“If we speed up improving the country’s capacity to serve a rising number of tourists, we are confident that Thailand will maintain its market leadership for international tourists in the Asean bloc,” he said. “Our Asean strategy is one destination for 10 countries. We try to cooperate to reduce the problems for foreign tourists to visit 10 countries in Asean, especially the process to create one Asean visa for 10 countries that is underway,” said the permanent secretary. The Nation /