Bad News and Bad Publicity (Thai Scams)
Patong has received some bad publicity recently. Two stories particularly have created negative headlines around the world's media.
First, a property dispute over Jintana Plaza on the beach road caused a series of late night arson attacks and then finally erupted into a full on OK Coral style gunfight in broad daylight on the beach road. One man died and three others were wounded.
Then a reality TV show highlighted the long running jet-ski scam. For those that do not know, it has long been a common occurrence in Patong that tourists rent a jet-ski and after they are finished, the operator claims they have damaged the jet-ski and demands compensation. They then try to bully the customer into paying an absurd repair fee, often more than 40,000-baht. Well this reality TV program first showed a jet-ski operator intimidating money from a group of British Marines while holding an air rifle at his side. Then they released footage on YouTube of the same group of jet-ski operators pulling the same scam on US personnel.
In fact, the bad publicity has not been restricted to Patong. Thailand in general has been getting a bad press. An apparent scam at the new Suwannapoom International Airport made headlines around the world. It emerged that Thai airport police had arrested a couple for shoplifting at a duty free shop and held them at a cheap airport hotel for a week. During that time, a Sri Lankan go-between extorted a large sum of money from them to arrange their release. A series of similar stories emerged, suggesting that this was a regularly occurring scam. In fact, there had been rumours of this scam circulating on the web for several months. Whether these people were guilty of shoplifting or not is not the point. Police forcing tourists to bribe their way out of the country is bad for Thailand's reputation.
Thailand was already suffering bad publicity from the political turmoil that has beset the country over the last few years. First a military coup, then the yellow shirt occupation of Suwannapoom Airport (and Phuket Airport) and then the red shirt disruption of the Asean meeting in Pattaya. Mass protests in the streets were broadcast around the world. To those watching from a distance it must not have looked like the sort of country worth visiting for a holiday.
With all this bad publicity, the last thing the Thai tourism industry needed was more bad publicity about tourist scams and shootouts in tourist resorts. Tourism is an important money earner for Thailand and at a time of worldwide recession, bad publicity is the last thing they need.
Thailand's tourism industry has taken many blows in recent years. Since the terrorism attacks in 2001, there have also been SARs, bird flu, swine flu, the Bali bombing and of course the tsunami. To this list, you can also add an increase in airfares because of the world oil price. Then there is the strong baht and a general increase in prices, which make Thailand a more expensive place to visit.
Despite all these blows, Thailand's tourism industry has been remarkably resilient. Thailand has a fabulous worldwide reputation for its attractions and friendly people and there was a tremendous amount of sympathy after the tsunami disaster. Thailand also benefits from a very high number of repeat visitors. There are so many visitors who once they have been here once, they want to come back again and again. Those who know the country well, know that the political unrest does not particularly affect holidaymakers -- well unless the airport happens to get closed while you are here. These people keep on coming.
However, it does seem that finally the combination of worldwide recession, bad news and bad publicity is taking its toll. This year, tourism numbers are genuinely down. Many Phuket hotels are reporting occupancy rates as low as 20 percent. I know of one top-class hotel that last week had only two guests.
While the worldwide recession is a major factor behind this, the effect of all the bad publicity should not be underestimated. Thailand now has more genuine rivals in the Southeast Asian tourism market. Countries like Vietnam and even Cambodia are emerging as genuine competitors along with existing rivals like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
When Thailand receives bad publicity, the holiday making public now has more alternatives for their tropical holiday. Some of them are distinctly cheaper than Thailand. The one thing that works in Thailand's favour is its excellent reputation as a holiday destination.
I genuinely do not believe that Thailand is any worse than any of these other countries for tourist scams. There is no doubt that scams are common and plentiful in Thailand, as they are across most developing countries. The majority of the scams are small scale and easy enough to avoid if you are a savvy traveller. The problem is, in this new age, Thailand really cannot afford this constant stream of bad publicity. If the country wants to maintain its reputation as a top holiday destination, it needs to step forward and make a genuine effort to crack down on the scams. That is not just pay public lip service to the issue but genuinely try to change attitudes about scamming.
There is one other factor that has changed. It is no longer just the big headline scams that damage Thailand's reputation. What has changed is that the mass of small scams also get publicised because the way we disseminate information around the world has changed. The internet gives every person who falls victim to a scam in Thailand an outlet to publicise their grievance. Internet forums, blogs and social media sites buzz with stories of annoying little scams in Thailand. This means that every little scam perpetrated in Thailand adds weight to the flow of bad publicity.
Thailand needs to recognise that the world has changed. We are in a new era and you can no longer hide the more unsavoury aspects of the country. When something bad happens, the world knows about it and you can no longer pretend it does not happen. Thailand must accept that the time when they could accept the widespread scams has ended. It now causes too much bad publicity and damage to Thailand's reputation. They must seriously start on the slow process of changing attitudes.
I am not going to say it will be easy. The scam culture has become deeply ingrained. The new prime minister of Thailand seems like a decent man and I believe he is genuine in his desire to cut down on scams and corruption. The problem is the scam culture is now part of the system. The thing about the jet-ski scam mentioned above is that the tourists will often ask a local policeman to help them. What they do not realise is that the local policeman is actually going to receive a cut of the money so he backs the jet-ski operator and insists that the customer must pay. That is why it will be a slow process to end these scams. Everybody knows what happens but while the system is an inter-twined part of the problem, it will be a slow process to unravel it all.
Let's finish on a positive note because despite the large number of irritating little scams taking place in Thailand, I still believe that the vast majority of Thai people are honest and decent. They are just as appalled by the scam masters as the rest of us and hate the damage done to Thailand's reputation.