Challenge of mass tourism

If anyone with a stake in the country's tourism industry thought that the new cabinet reshuffle might provide them with a minister able to win back traditional markets, tap into new ones, deal with the lasting impact of the eurozone crisis, position the industry for the creation of the Asean Economic Community and prepare a strategy to counter Myanmar's growing appeal as an untapped destination, they were in for a disappointment.

Such political visionaries are rare but do exist. However they are unlikely to be attracted to a "non-core" ministry where tourism, a major earner of foreign exchange, is lumped in with sport.

If it is any consolation, the cabinet did approve several worthwhile projects during its meeting on Koh Samui this week. They included a small hospital on nearby Koh Tao and an underwater power cable for Koh Phangan to boost the power supply which should be in place by the time the island's new airport opens. Other projects are in the pipeline to promote tourism and develop its potential and these must be carefully thought out to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Often they have taken the form of glossing over the more sinister side of tourism development or condoning it as the end justifying the means.

Industry observers see the biggest problem plaguing the tourism sector in recent years as uncertainty worsened by a lack of political leadership and the absence of clear direction from the top for long-term improvement. To this must be added the questionable emphasis placed on boosting tourist numbers and revenue targets at almost any cost, even when this comes at the expense of environmental sustainability and overloads public services.

Despite these concerns, this looks like being a record-breaking year for tourist arrivals, especially from China and India. Last year the 2 million people employed in the travel and hospitality sector thought the same as years of political uproar subsided. But then came the floods.

The ecological impact of mass tourism and the damage it can cause has been well-documented. It has put increasing pressure on our world-famous beauty spots with arrivals approaching unsustainable levels in the Andaman region. Government agencies which should be protecting our national heritage from the ravages of greedy land developers have an abysmal track record and often seem to be in cahoots with them.

Some powerful vested interest groups even behave as though coastal and other scenic areas are theirs alone to exploit. This is hardly a secret and neither are the deep pockets possessed by some of these developers, which could have a bearing on why probes into shady land deals sometimes fade quietly away.

Our tourism model must give priority to saving the most beautiful parts of our country from the blight of excessive property development, a fate that has already befallen mass tourism destinations elsewhere. Spain suffered acutely from overbuilding and the administration of the Balearic Islands sensibly imposed a freeze on large-scale construction along the delicate coastlines of the tourist magnets of Ibiza, Majorca and Menorca in an attempt to preserve them.

This is the direction we should be taking. They have more than 20 million tourists a year to contend with. This compares to our government's rather optimistic target of 30 million foreign and domestic tourists generating 2 trillion baht annually by 2015.

It is possible to live in harmony with mass tourism but it must be regulated better. There has already been enough deterioration in our beautiful coastlines, scenic retreats, villages and traditional ways of life. We cannot ignore our obligation to leave them unspoiled for future generations.