Thailand under strain from tourist surge

Thailand under strain from tourist surge
Reuters file photo

Thailand under strain from tourist surge

BANGKOK — Thailand’s tourist industry faces “trouble” without urgent investment to cope with an expected near-doubling of visitors to 60 million by 2030, a top official has warned.

The South-east Asian kingdom must press ahead with plans to expand ports, airports and railways to deal with a holidaymaker surge that has propped up the spluttering economy but put a growing strain on infrastructure, said Mr Pongpanu Svetarundra, permanent secretary to the tourism ministry.

The visitor boom partly reflects explosive travel growth among newly wealthy Chinese. The rush has delivered the ruling military junta in Bangkok a much-needed financial boost but left airports and other chokepoints buckling under the strain.

Mr Pongpanu told the Financial Times “everyone is starting to get a little bit worried” by the impact of annual visitor numbers that have more than doubled in the past six years, with the tourism sector now accounting for almost a fifth of the economy.

“If we don’t do anything, we will get into trouble,” Mr Pongpanu said, adding that his ministry was lobbying the transport department to push ahead with infrastructure plans. “The congestion will be more and more. This is why it’s the most opportune moment to talk of upgrading, investment and expansion of existing facilities.”

Thailand’s tourism ambitions was underscored this week as it hosted the global summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council, where Mr David Cameron, former United Kingdom prime minister, gave a keynote address. The country is also scheduled to host high-profile international events in fields from motorcycle racing to gastronomy as part of an effort to grow as a venue for speciality holidays. 
Tourism is a rare source of growth for an economy hobbled by a decade of on-off political crisis that included a military coup three years ago.
Government figures suggest the sector accounts directly and indirectly for about 17.7 per cent of gross domestic product, while some international estimates put the number as high as 20 per cent, Mr Pongpanu said. He acknowledged the potential pitfalls of overdependence on the industry.

Holidaymakers from mainland China accounted for almost half the rise in visitor arrivals from 15.9 million in 2010 to 32.6 million last year, driven in part by Lost in Thailand, a 2012 road trip movie that won cult status in the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese tourist numbers have continued to rise despite a jump last year in visa-on-arrival fees and a crackdown on so-called “zero dollar tours” — cut-price packages in which agents shepherd visitors on a compulsory itinerary of favoured hotels and shops.

Thailand’s increasing reliance on international visitors was underscored this month during a dispute over a crackdown by the Bangkok administration on the city’s famous street food. Mr Pongpanu said his ministry was in discussion about the plans with the capital’s authorities, which have already suggested vendors in some tourist areas will be spared.