Kingdom must consider legalised gaming soon, tourism forum hears
The nation's pre-eminent gathering of tourism and travel-industry experts has concluded that while Thailand looks headed for its best year ever for tourist numbers and revenues, action to legalise gaming, improve infrastructure and attract "quality" travellers is urgently needed ahead as establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) nears.
More than 350 tourism-industry movers and shakers attended the Thailand Tourism Forum at the InterContinental Bangkok recently, voting on key issues facing the industry and setting alarm bells ringing about the country's long-term competitiveness in the region.
Bill Barnett, co-organiser of the forum and managing director of C9 Hotelworks, said more than 60 per cent of respondents at the event who participated in the Thailand Tourism Index survey believed legal casinos would be an important factor in Thailand remaining competitive with other economic and tourism powers in the region.
"Thailand's tourism [industry] needs to study very carefully the issue of gaming and other demand generators to attain sustained volume growth," he said. "There is a very real risk of us slipping behind places like Singapore and Macau in terms of visibility, branding and revenues. Thailand is also facing a glut of hotel rooms, so we need big draw cards like casinos as key drivers of demand."
More than 80 per cent of those voting agreed that Thailand was now staring down the barrel of an oversupply of rooms and that urgent action was required.
Among them were keynote speakers at the forum and notables including Dillip Rajakarier of Minor Hotel Group, Chanin Donavanik of Dusit Hotels and Resorts, Peter Henley of Onyx Hospitality and Hotels, Robert Hecker of Horwath HTL, Paul Logan of InterContinental Hotels Group, Jonas Ogren of STR Global, David Keen of Quo Global and John Koldowski of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
Barnett said the Thailand Tourism Forum was the country's first report card on the state of the industry and an opportunity to look beyond the numbers at how tourism performance can affect a country's entire economy.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) aims to welcome 24.5 million international visitors this year, after a 15-per-cent increase last year that earned the country more than Bt965 billion, up 24 per cent from 2011.
Among the top source countries for international visitors, China stays at the top, followed by Malaysia, Japan, Russia, South Korea, India, Laos, Australia, the United Kingdom and Singapore.
'ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM'
Barnett said mass tourism was the "elephant in the room".
"As Wall Street learned, nothing grows forever. Thailand needs to learn the lessons of a volatile trading environment and focus on developing stronger infrastructure and perhaps temper growth targets and create more healthy segmentation than simply more, more, more."
The AEC is undoubtedly a "game-changer", and will accelerate the impetus that has been building for a less divided Asean ever since the global financial crisis thrust Thailand and the region on to the world stage in 1997, he said.
"The AEC will only create a stronger fundamental for this going forward. Boosted by rising low-cost airline carriers and a growing middle class, we expect this trend to dominate the market during this decade."
The AEC comprises the economic integration of all 10 Asean member states by 2015, with the goals of creating a single market and production base.
More freedom of travel and likely single-issue visas for the entire Asean region also raises security issues for travellers and nations but is not a reason to be too pessimistic, Barnett said.
"The euro zone has effectively handled this for an extended time, and I believe with appropriate technology and increased cooperation between intelligence services and police in Asean, that risk can be mitigated. Ultimately the benefits far outweigh the downside."
Mike Batchelor, managing director of investment sales at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels and Hospitality Group and a keynote speaker at the conference, said Bangkok was expected to replace Phuket as Thailand's hospitality-investment hot spot. The new real-estate investment trust law is likely to lead to an increase in property transactions, bolstered by increasing levels of international investment as global economies recover.