Thailand is shedding its sleazy sex and drugs image to boost tourism. Chris Webb reports.
Thailand, "the land of the smiles," has had little to laugh about in 1990 and 1991. The Gulf war was the culprit, cutting GDP growth back to single figures after the heady expansion of the late 80s. Yet forecasters are optimistic that with the war out of the way, Thailand's economy in 1992 can return to the 1988 and 1989 pattern which saw the GDP swell by 13.2% and 12.1% respectively.
Tourism is one of the key areas being targeted by a Thai government set on growth, and a major clean-up campaign is to be launched to rid the country of its sleazy sex and drugs image. In October these efforts were rewarded when Thailand hosted the annual conference of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Some 15,000 key world figures sampled Bangkok's delights. But, even this success cannot disguise the blow to tourism caused by the war. The industry had been growing at a rate of some 30% a year, and in 1990 there were 4.8 million visitors. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) had been forecasting six million visitors for 1991 before the Gulf War, a figure which would have generated over £3.35 billion in valuable foreign exchange revenue.
Though the six million target looks hopelessly optimistic today, the Thai government believes the potential for further growth is enormous long-term. International hoteliers seem to agree and many large international class hotels have sprung up in the last two years, not just in Bangkok and the popular resorts of Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai, but also in many emerging and less well-known towns and cities.
On the positive side the TAT lists strong regional economies, more airline seats into Thailand, stronger demand for beach holidays and an increased supply of hotel rooms at competitive prices. Negative factors include the effects of the Gulf War, the further deterioration of some Thai tourist sites, manpower shortages, inadequate airport facilities, competition from other regional countries, and Thailand's internal problems, including traffic jams in Bangkok and AIDS.
Bounded by Burma to the West, by Laos to the North, Cambodia to the East and Malaysia to the South, Thailand boasts a climate that is the envy of many more established tourism venues. Most tourists enter Thailand by air to Bangkok, by far the country's largest city, with more than six million inhabitants. But Thailand's unique character and cultural heritage just wait to be discovered. Bangkok and its industrial belt are the first ports of call for most foreign business visitors.
About the size of France, Thailand is a relatively large country, and its attractions are spread far apart. Travelling to them by road and by rail is possible but slow. Air is the only viable mode of transport to Chiang Mai and Phuket. Thai Airways International operates a comprehensive network of domestic routes. Chiang Mai, for example, takes just an hour to reach by air from Bangkok, compared with 10 hours by road and 14 hours by train. Here can be seen many ancient temples, teak forests complete with their working elephants, caves and waterfalls.
Phuket can be reached by road, but it takes a bone-shaking 11 hours. Pattaya, perhaps Thailand's best known tourism venue, can be reached in under two hours by a very efficient and inexpensive bus service (under £3).
In Bangkok itself there are now well in excess of 12,000 bedrooms in new and fashionable hotels meeting high international standards. Typically they boast a high staff to guest ratio, and invariably offer swimming pools, health and business centres as a standard service. Those wanting to escape the smog of Bangkok, which is worsening fast as an estimated 3,000 more vehicles a month take to the roads, will find provincial hotels that are less lavish, but still keen to provide a high level of comfort and service.
Thailand is still one of the developing world's most dynamic economies. GDP currently stands at around US$67 billion, representing a per capita income of some US$1,200. The country has a huge agricultural sector which not only feeds the nation but also has sufficient remaining produce to export in large quantities. Rubber, tin and other minerals are also produced.
Everywhere in Bangkok there is construction. Contractors work long into the night on sky scrapers destined to become offices, hotels and apartments. So busy is the local construction economy, that an acute shortage of cement threatened to bring many projects to a halt earlier this year. This burgeoning industry is confirmation, were any needed, that Thailand can lay as much of a claim as any one else in the region to be the "Crossroads of Asia."
Chris Webb is a freelance writer.