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Legal Casinos, One-Stop Visa and ‘Demand Generators’ Key to Thailand’s Long-Term Success as Record Year for Tourism Looms: Travel Summit

BANGKOK, THAILAND: The nation’s pre-eminent gathering of tourism and travel industry experts has concluded that while Thailand looks headed for its best year for tourist numbers and revenues ever, action to legalise gaming, improve infrastructure and attract ‘quality’ travellers was urgently needed ahead of moves to introduce the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

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 Thailand’s long-term competitiveness in the region.

Bill Barnett, co-organizer of the forum and Managing Director of C9 Hotelworks, said over 60 percent 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 tourist powers in the region.

“Thailand tourism 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 percent 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 (Minor Hotel Group), Chanin Donavanik (Dusit Hotels and Resorts), Peter Henley (Onyx Hospitality and Hotels), Robert Hecker (Horwath HTL), Paul Logan (InterContinental Hotels Group), Jonas Ogren (STR Global), David Keen (Quo Global), John Koldowski (PATA) and Bill Barnett (C9 Hotelworks).

Mr Barnett said: “Thailand Tourism Forum – 2013 (TTF) is 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) has announced aims to achieve 24.5 million international visitors in 2013, following a 15 percent increase from 2011 to 2012, which earned the country over THB 965 billion.

International tourist arrivals, according to TAT, have increased 15 percent from last year and earned the country more than 965 billion baht (US$31.5 billion), a 24-per-cent rise from last year. Among the top-10 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.

Mr 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.”

Voting at the forum on key issues affecting the industry also revealed:

  • An overwhelmingly positive outlook for 2013, with international arrivals tipped to easily eclipse the record 22 million recorded for 2012
  • Only a handful of industry figures were concerned about the high value of the baht
  • Phuket was overwhelmingly the favoured location for hotel investment in 2012, more than twice as desirable than Bangkok or Pattaya, with Samui, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai stirring minimal interest with hotel developers and financiers
  • Global trends were echoed in Thailand, with MICE, health and wellness, and culture and heritage the strongest drivers of tourism demand with prospects for growth, rated far ahead of shopping, adventure travel, and theme parks
  • A split vote on the issue of legalizing gaming came down in favour of allowing casinos by a factor of about 10 percent
  • Industry leaders were unanimous that AEC 2015 would have a significant impact on tourism and travel in Thailand

Mr Barnett said the AEC was undoubtedly a ‘game-changer’, and would accelerate the impetus that had been building for a less divided ASEAN ever since the global financial crisis thrust Thailand and the region onto the world stage in 1997. “Regional travel has been a key tourism storyline over the past four years with sustained growth,” 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.

Calls for legal casinos began in earnest last year, when CP Group boss and multi-billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont called for casino licences to be issues for Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya and warned Thailand was slipping behind regional rivals and allowing ‘underground businesses and dark powers’ to flourish by not taking control of the lucrative gaming sector.

Mr Barnett said more freedom of travel and likely single-issue visas for the entire AEC region also raised security issues for travellers and nations but was not reason to be too pessimistic. “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, Investment Sales, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels & Hospitality Group and a keynote speaker at the conference, said Bangkok was expected to replace Phuket as Thailand’s hospitality investment hot spot, with the new Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) law likely to lead to an increase in property transactions, bolstered by increasing levels of international investment as global economies recover.

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