Noelle Greenwood takes us through the ins and outs of tourism in Thailand.
To every kind of escapist, Thailand has something to offer. For the active explorer, it boasts mountainous terrains and waterfalls in the north, as well as scuba-diving in the warm oceans of the south. On the islands, sunlit tropical beaches lined with coconut palms are a haven for those who seek a care-free existence and darker skin. For those who seek energy and entertainment, Bangkok offers a vibrant collision of traditional and modern; glass skyscrapers tower above old markets and temples in a sleepless city which offers every cuisine and satisfies every temptation. The long-standing global attraction to Thailand has earned it the title of the tenth most visited country, and its capital Bangkok is hailed as the most visited city in the world with 20.5 million visitors in 2018. Though such impressive accolades are testament to the nation’s robust tourist industry which boasts a well-trodden trail through a lively capital and a land endowed with natural splendour, they also point to a grave problem.
Touchdown in Bangkok. In the Western quarter, the Palace and its temples are stoic emblems celebrating the elaborate history of the Chakri dynasty, now the richest monarchy in the world. Here, opulence fuses with religion: majestic structures embellished with intricate carvings and sloping golden roofs house giant Buddhas encrusted in bronze and mother of pearl. Shrines overspill with marigolds, candles and food offerings, encased in swirls of burning incense. Although on a sunny day, my moment of admiration for the temples is swiftly interrupted by a desire to escape the heat and thankfully, swathes of tuk tuks and air-conditioned taxis await outside the gates to whisk me away. Nightfall in Bangkok unleashes an almost entirely different city; wheeled market stalls flock to line the dirty pavements and the street overflows with sizzling grates of barbequed squid, warm boxes of steamed prawn dumplings, colourful trays of fresh tropical fruit, deep vats of fragrant coconut curries, giant stoves of beef noodle soup and dishes of – how could I forget – Phad Thai! For travellers, Bangkok’s nightlife finds fertile soil on Khao San Road. Located within the old quarter and rammed with cheap hostels, the area has long been established as the capital’s backpacker district. Bright lights and loud music lure sweaty wanderers into shops and bars which spill into the street, offering cheap buckets of free-poured mixers, beers and melon-sized balloons of laughing gas. Nestled within the care-free frenzy are the determined faces of vendors with barbecued pork and Phad Thai stalls for the drunk and ravenous, as well as barbequed scorpions and fried crickets for the drunk and daring.
Six hundred kilometres south of Khao San Road, almost the exact same scene is performed in Haad Rin once every month on Koh Phangan – Thailand’s Full-Moon Party island. Here though, bustling bars and clubs burst onto a sandy beach instead of a street, luring hordes of lesser-clothed wanderers into their midst. Mixers are poured into even bigger buckets, barbecued chicken (I didn’t see as much Phad Thai) is piled up in industrial quantities, and those who follow the lights to the end of Haad Rin beach to Mushroom Mountain will find a human swarm not only drunk, but hallucinating too. In one night, up to 30,000 people flock to ‘the world’s best beach party’, leaving with it ticked off their list of must-do activities in Thailand.
I often visited Koh Phangan’s southern neighbour, Koh Samui, on family holidays when I was growing up in Thailand and remember seeing the distant flashing lights across the water at dinner one night on a beach restaurant on Samui’s northern shore. Seeing I was curious, my Dad told me they belonged to the infamous beach party held every full moon. The chance to finally go arose when my English friends factored the Full-Moon Party into their gap-year voyage through Thailand in the summer of 2017. As for Khao San Road, I ended up there this summer on a Friday after work. Since encountering two of the most typical sites on a backpacker’s itinerary, I have been marked with a frustration at the all-too-common experience of Thailand which I fear has culminated into a harmful, and frankly heart-breaking perception of the country I adore and proudly call my birthplace and homeland.
To backpackers, the ‘Land of Smiles’ owes its mammoth attraction to its island escapes, low prices and its reputation for simply providing ‘a good time’. It acts as a convenient base for backpackers who plan to disperse into Southeast Asia, with Bangkok being used before and after ventures through the country to the usual destination of Chiang Mai, the up-and-coming chillout spot Pai, and to the southern tropical islands and coasts. The well-trodden track through Thailand has become, in my eyes, a pilgrimage for backpackers and travellers; the sustained popularity of the Khao San Road and the full-moon party, despite their blatant and fallacious hyper-performance of lawlessness and pandemonium, only serves to prove this. Many travellers subsequently leave without much more than merely the image of a huge party in Bangkok and an even bigger party on the islands imprinted on their perception of the country. Alongside this, the effect of a tourist industry largely embedded in only a handful of regions in Thailand not only gives way to the issue of over-tourism in the most popular parts, but also lost opportunity to explore the beautiful landscapes and elaborate culture beyond those designated regions.
Tourism, however, is a two-way street. Thailand’s role as a host openly embraces visitors into its booming industry which impressively accounts for 20% of the national economy. Tourism directly contributes to 6.2% of employment which rises to 15.5% when including indirect contributions, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. It is an ever-growing industry too; plans for airport expansion by Airports of Thailand are well under way. Furthermore, Thailand 4.0 – an ambitious sector-specific industrial policy aiming to increase Foreign Direct Investment – has reintroduced tax incentives to reward the successful promotion of domestic tourism by private companies. Answering the question of whether Thailand is nearing its tourism capacity, Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat replied, “Oh yeah”. With plans to further expand tourism in the coming years, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond the nature of an industry which has evolved to churn tourists through its attractions.
Consequently, we see a self-perpetuating cycle; on the outside, foreign tourist-appeal only grows through promotion to new markets (namely Latin America) and is facilitated by further relaxations in visa regulations; on the inside, the lucrative power of tourism persuades both government and private sector to increase visitor surges. Although Thailand proudly sits in tenth position among the most popular countries in the world for tourists, it does not appear anywhere near the Economist’s top ten for tourism policy implementation in 2017. The effects of the lack of structures in place to cope with continuous surges have already given way to devastating effects. The forced closure of Maya Bay last year (owing its popularity to The Beach), as a result of over-pollution and environmental damage exposed the lack of control over tourist numbers. The tragic death of 40 Chinese tourists last year who sank on a boat off the coast of Phuket demonstrated the lack of diligence in safety standards. Some policies implemented already even seem erroneous: the mass clearing of street-food from Bangkok’s roads in an effort to make the city seem cleaner are counter-productive to showing intrinsic parts of Thai culture and are frankly sad to the eyes of a girl who grew up revelling in the experience of walking city pavements teeming with stalls and carts. The vibrant array of colour from fresh fruit and vegetables practically falling from the back of grocer trucks, the mixed aromas of curries and spicy stews bubbling in enormous pots, the crock-crock sound of pestle hitting mortar on papaya salad (som tum) stalls, the occasional blow of burning heat from a wok tossing garlic and chilli (not Phad Thai) over an open-fire stove: this incredible scene seems to be disappearing from yet another street every time I return to my city. Instead, stalls are forced to erect themselves in designated bazaars and organised markets.
This being said, the government has shown increasing sensitivity to the problems of over-tourism. Looking beyond the initially feeble control of tourist numbers, we must commend the Tourism Authority of Thailand for closing tropical hot-spots like Maya Bay and Koh Tachai, which stopped accepting tourists last year and in 2016 respectively. It has openly integrated the importance of sustainability into its policies; on a smaller scale, the Green Tourism project ‘engages tourists in waste collection and waterways clean-up efforts’. To involve major players in industry, it has kick-started public-private initiatives. Upcycling the Oceans, for example, is held in conjunction with petrochemical giant PTT and aims to promote cleaner tourism through systematic waste collection and separation in popular coastal zones. Furthermore, the thriving hospitality industry seems to be leading the way for sustainability in popular areas. Holding 16 resorts and spas in Thailand and a further 20 countries, Six Senses is a perfect example of sound environmental practice within hospitality by banning plastic, managing energy and water consumption, solid waste and waste diversion practices. Accor Hotels, a much larger group, has changed its food purchasing practices to improve food wastage, water use and irrigation in developing countries. With today’s burgeoning awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability, establishments which promote their greener practices transparently may well gain significant competitive edge. To extend this ethos beyond high-end hotels and businesses, however, the government must implement incentives to promote sustainability in small and medium-sized companies. After all, there is a marked distinction between the holidays of an upmarket traveller and the mass tourist. Recent plans to disperse tourism away from Thailand’s most popular regions are a prime opportunity through which to push environmental goodwill to set a precedent and contribute to improved common practice in years to come. With forecasts of 100 million visitors per year by 2032, setting sustainable ambitions in motion now is imperative.
Ultimately, the profitability of tourism to public and private actors means the industry will continue to maximise its efforts to promote Thailand’s attractions. While the government has the capacity to control the nature in which tourism unfolds, its desire to sustain a lucrative industry will take precedence. As a culture famed for its affinity to accommodate outsiders, however, Thais will cater to the demands of visitors. It lies mostly in the hands of tourists, therefore, to propel sustainable practice. Treating the environment we go to explore with the same respect and consideration we pay our own is a good start, though this must also be aided by measures enforced by the host government such as implementing pollution penalties for consumers and monetary incentives for businesses to adopt environmentally beneficial practices. Opening the door to the real parts of any new place, I believe, requires a degree of audacity. To push tourism away from Thailand’s most common attractions, which have largely become too overcrowded to enjoy anyway, travellers should look beyond popular platforms in search of authenticity. Making use of local knowledge too will unlock entirely new aspects and realms of a country at risk of losing its true essence in the eyes of tourists. After all, where beyond Phad Thai is a myriad of mouth-watering national cuisine, beyond Thailand’s common trail too is a country whose finest crevices and cultural nuances are waiting to be explored.