Thailand’s Amazing Tourism an Amazing Mess: New Minister

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Sports and Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat tours a forest Jan. 19 in Ubon Ratchathani province.
Photo: Weerasak Kowsurat / Courtesy

Thailand’s tourism boom is causing serious problems and the bureaucracy is ill-equipped to fix them.

That no-punches spared assessment comes from none other than its new tourism minister, Weerasak Kowsurat.

“The problems have been swept under the rug for 30 years now. At this time, it’s being lifted up a little,” the 52-year-old Harvard law school graduate said in an interview. “I don’t have enough time to change the rug. What I will do is pull the corners. You can show what’s under the rug if you grab the right corner.”

Unlike the predecessor he replaced in November, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, a media-savvy figure known for her always-rosy take on Thai tourism – Weerasak is a policy pedant with a gloomier take on it’s mismanagement.

During the course of an hour-long interview, the former Tourism Authority of Thailand board member kept circling back to the same threats confronting this critical engine of the national economy: Ever-growing hordes of tourists trampling sensitive beaches, cities and towns that never get their share and a bureaucracy that doesn’t know how to fix such problems.

He does not shy from the critics either.

“We share the same wishes,” Weerasak said of the commentators who criticize his agency, switching to English. “But we don’t seem to have the right tools [to fix the problems]. What we have are paper regulations.”

This isn’t Weerasak’s first time on the job. The technocrat held the post twice in 2008, a turbulent year marked by months-long street protests that brought down two governments and briefly occupied Bangkok’s international airports.

Weerasak, who in high school spent a year in the United States as an exchange student, also remembered it as his own turbulent time. He was only given three days notice he would head the ministry. Prior to the job, he had never worked in tourism.

“I got the job right in the peak of sport day,” Weerasak said, using a reference to the color-coded political crisis pitting Redshirts against Yellowshirts.

Surviving Success

A lot has changed in the nine years since he last served in the post. For one, tourist numbers jumped from 14 million in 2008 to 35 million in 2017 – and counting. An explosion of Chinese arrivals in recent years has taken the cities, islands and beaches by storm.

Tourism generated 1.47 trillion baht between January and October according to the latest available data – which does not include the last three months, known as the peak season.

But Weerasak said that boon is also Thailand’s bane. Destinations that tout “sea, sand and sun” such as Phuket and its outer islands are now dangerously overcrowded, plagued by waste issues and running short of fresh water. They have seen no major infrastructure overhauls in over a decade, he said.

On the other hand, cities in the north – with the notable exception of Chiang Mai – and the northeast barely see any tourists or reap the benefits of the so-called boom. Weerasak himself was born in northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani.

“It’s a disparity between those who have too much, and those who have too little,” Weerasak said. “Just like inequality in Thailand in general.”

Asked whether Thailand is becoming a victim of its own success, the minister said he wouldn’t go so far. Countries such as Spain and France have a higher ratio of tourists to the population but are doing fine, Weerasak said. He pinned the problems on domestic management.

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