By The Nation
Thailand – an alluring destination for foreigners from the earliest days of Persian and Chinese trade missions and Portuguese explorers – has counted tourism as its single biggest money earner since advances in aviation made air travel affordable in the latter part of the last century. The number of tourists arriving from all over the world has never stopped growing, with this year’s tally likely to top 30 million. The Kingdom has much to offer indeed – the sub-tropical climate, elegant temples, revered food, gorgeous beaches and majestic mountains with their colourful ethnic tribes.
And yet, as with all good things, here as everywhere, there is always a worrying downside to tourism. While Thai culture is sturdy enough to resist the worst of foreign influences, we have our own tendency to curry favour among those visitors who arrive with agendas that have nothing to do with beaches or Buddhism. Quite apart from the revenue gleaned from hotel bookings, guided tours, elephant rides and admissions to attractions, there is just as much money to be made from sordid activities that routinely see women and wildlife abused, health and lives put at risk. Ultimately, they also see the country’s overseas reputation further stained.
The dark side of Thai tourism includes overpricing, lurid sex shows in bars, gang-controlled prostitution, dangerous means of transport, robbery of every scale and, increasingly, violent assaults on tourists.
From Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a world-famous backpacker hub, complaints emerged recently that young children were pestering travellers to buy floral bouquets. The kids turned out to have been “purchased” from their poor parents in Myanmar and forced to sell bunches of roses in the streets at inflated prices. As proudly “low-rent” as it is, Khao San Road now joins the list of Thai tourist destinations whose reputations are being sullied by shady businesspeople running organised criminal enterprises.
Operators of honest businesses should be speaking out more about these types of illicit activities. The more noise they make and the better the chance that the authorities will begin earnestly enforcing the law to stop criminals from undermining Thailand’s attractiveness. We have a solid Tourist Police force that by most accounts does a fine job of aiding and protecting visitors, but clearly there is more to be done to shelter our guests from harm while they’re here.
Perhaps the most disturbing recent case of a tourist falling victim to evil intent was the Australian woman who was raped after leaving Khao San Road in an inebriated state. Trustful of her surroundings and her Thai hosts, she accepted a ride from a motorcycle-taxi driver, and one such service provider now stands accused of horrifying sexual assault.
It would be wonderful if Thais could feel “honoured” that we are so trusted by foreigners, but we know all too well among ourselves that many of our countrymen deserve no such trust. It thus becomes every good citizen’s moral responsibility to warn visitors about possible predators lying in wait. It is not enough to expect holidaymakers to always exercise common sense. They’re here to relax, indulge their fancy and forget about any worries back home. If a guest, for example – especially one who’s on his own – drinks to the point of intoxication, a good host is especially watchful for his safety.
Despite horror stories transmitted around the globe from our beach resorts, nightlife zones and hazardous highways, Thailand’s reputation as a charming and friendly holiday destination remains secure. The people who are most likely to damage that perception are not sex tourists or unruly tour groups but greedy local entrepreneurs taking advantage of unsuspecting travellers. Let’s stop them so that we can guard our visitors, along with our international reputation.