Thai tourism needs to up its game - Pokemon Go is not the answer
August 30, 2016 01:00 By Achara Deboonme
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The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has hatched a plan to boost tourism with Pokemon Go, the world’s most popular mobile game app. The TAT is currently in negotiations with the game’s developer, Niantic, for tourists to catch rare characters in 24 pro
Deep down, I can’t help asking why Thailand needs such a short-term scheme, given that the country has great hospitality, food, culture and natural wonders with which to lure visitors.
Since its launch, the free Pokemon Go app has been downloaded by more than 130 million people around the world. But it appeals to younger rather than older people, with most of its estimated 10 million-plus daily users born after 1990. Given that this group’s spending power is not the highest, questions arise over how much Thailand can benefit from the plan.
Another question mark hovers over the game’s popularity.
The last few weeks have brought reports in various countries of players rushing to Pokemon hotspots. But will this trend continue? Some users I know of are still yearning to up their levels, but several others have already uninstalled the app. They enjoyed the chase at first, but they were eventually deterred by the effort and travel required to collect all 146 characters.
The plan is for two rare characters to be hidden in each of the 24 provinces, but how many people will find the time and money to travel all that way.
I can’t help thinking that this is a gimmick and that the tourism agency needs to think harder.
The fact is that Thailand still lacks a comprehensive plan to boost tourism in the long term.
Reports usually focus on the impressive-sounding figures for tourist arrivals. This year they look set to meet the TAT’s record target of 30 million, with 16.5 million visitors already clocked up in the first six months.
The first quarter saw 9 million arrive, up by 15.5 per cent on the same period last year, while the second quarter witnessed 7.55 million, a rise of 8.2 per cent.
Our neighbours can only look on with envy. One tour operator in Yangon said that if only a tiny portion of Thailand’s visitors made a side trip to Myanmar, tourism there would boom. In 2014 Thailand welcomed 24.8 million visitors, while Myanmar drew just 3 million.
But in an era where resources are precious, countries are learning to focus on “quality” tourists who are willing to pay handsomely for products and services.
In 2014, a total of 1.16 billion globetrotters spent a whopping US$1.43 trillion, or an average of $1,232 per head, according to the World Bank. Thailand benefited more than most, with 24.8 million tourists spending a total $42 billion, or $1,693 per head. Thailand’s per-head tourist spending exceeded Singapore’s ($1,618), Indonesia’s ($1,225), Vietnam’s ($931), Malaysia’s ($824.8) and Myanmar’s ($523).
Worthy of note is that, just as these countries want to catch up with Thailand, we must seek to catch up with advanced economies.
Globally, Switzerland performed above average that year, earning $21 billion from 9.16 million tourists, or $2,292 per head. The United Kingdom fetched $62.83 billion from 32.6 million visitors, or $1,927 per head.
Luring high-income visitors comes down to several factors. Security is the top priority. After last year’s Erawan Shrine bombing, Thailand was lucky to remain on global tourists’ radar. But it remains to be seen how last month’s bombings in Southern provinces will affect tourism. It is worth noting that France’s tourism industry is now in tough situation following deadly attacks in the past two years.
According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, in 2014 France topped the rankings for international tourist arrivals, with 83.7 million visitors. But in terms of tourism revenue, it ranked 4th with $55.4 billion, trailing the United States, Spain and China. That ranking also dropped one place from the previous year, when the tourist receipts totalled $56.7 billion.
Another factor that would boost Thai tourism in the long term is better infrastructure. Road links here are second to none in the region. Yet signage remains a puzzle even to local travellers. On the negative side, our rail service is poor, forcing most travellers to travel by air or road. And within cities, transportation choices are poorly managed.
Thailand also needs to bolster local government’s role in nurturing cultural and natural attractions in their respective areas. Amphawa is famous for nature lovers, but it is the only attraction in Samut Songkhram – one of the 24 provinces highlighted by TAT – that comes to mind.
Little surprise greeted recent Bank of Thailand data showing that Thai hotel occupancy rate was only 64.1 per cent in the first half of this year.
Pokemon Go may increase visitors to the provinces in the near term, but deeper structural challenges remain long-term hurdles.