The terrors of tourism

‘Govt sets B3 trillion tourism target’ reads the Bangkok Post headline (together with a pic showing ‘Chinese tourists at Wat Phra Kaeo’ who have fair hair and big noses) (the dastardly Chinese tourists must have started wearing disguises!).

So that’s alright then.

Good news for that feller who wanders around in front of the dinosaur place on Sukhumwit with a fake ‘Drugs Police’ card in his pocket and accosts South Asian-looking tourists to check for ‘fake money’ which he deftly removes from their wallets.  Apart from having a larger clientele to fleece, he will enjoy richer pickings since the Prime Minister says the campaign will focus on ‘quality tourists’.  That is touristspeak for ‘tourists with more cash in their wallets’.

Good news for the ladyboys farther along Sukhumwit who pounce in pairs on late night tourist solo strollers.  If you jam your hands into your pockets to save your money, they’ll rip the gold chain off your neck.  Try to protect your gold chain and they’ll plunder your pockets.  And if you try to fight back against the odds, you quickly discover that in terms of fisticuffs, the operative bit is ‘boys’ rather than ‘lady’.

Good news for those in the uniforms with the green flashes on the shoulders and more medals than you would ever believe possible for municipal employees.  There will be more unwitting foreigners to shake down for littering (whether they have littered or not), and more exorbitant fines to extort.  But they won’t have to write more receipts because they don’t write any in the first place.

Good news for the taxi drivers for whom a hard day’s work means loafing round the entrances of hotels and entertainment places.  There will be more tourists who are ignorant of the laws on using taxi meters and won’t object to negotiated fares that are a multiple of the meter rate.  Or if they do demand that the meter be turned on, they won’t know the geography and can be given an unguided and unnecessarily expensive tour all over town.

Good news for the gangs with the nice line in patter about the money being so beautiful where you come from (wherever that may be) so can you show me some?  And while they’re feeling the quality and the rest of the gang is directing the tourist’s attention the other way, the beautiful money quietly disappears.

Good news for the hotel non-employees who greet the taxi and help carry the tourists’ bags up to their room where they offer them a special cash discount if they stay an extra night or two.  And they’ll bring the receipt back up directly.

But the benefits of increased tourist numbers don’t all flow in the direction of the seamier sections of Thai society.

All of us will be able to enjoy having the supermarket aisles blocked by tourists who can’t read any of the languages on the labels, who haven’t properly read the bit in the guidebooks about politeness in Thai society and who would be banned for life if they drove cars with the same reckless abandon they push shopping trolleys.

And all of us can delight in having suitcases rolled over our toes on the MRT or BTS as tourists decide that heavy luggage is just the thing to make rush hour even more cosy and fun.

And if we ourselves want to do some tourist things, like looking at temples, we can relish doing so from the back of a scrum 5 people deep (and they’ve all got cameras and phones to block your view).

And if our taste buds or our pockets send us in search of street food, we can all appreciate that Thailand must resemble Singapore or Disneyland if it wants tourist dollars, so it’s all been banned.

But it’s all for the good because Thailand will earn 3 trillion baht.

But who’s ‘Thailand’ in that sentence?

Well it will include the foreign-owned airlines and hotels and restaurant chains.  And the small elite who own and profit from tourism-related businesses.  And the state agencies who see more tourism as an opportunity for more extensive double-price gouging.  And a small fraction, doubtless, will trickle down to the tour guides and trinket sellers and tourist-oriented sex workers.

But the rest of the country?


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).