The tourism sector must halt its seeming "race to the bottom" and try to retain those tourists willing to spend money but not at the expense of society or the environment, say experts.
Udom Srimahachota, vice-president of the Western Chapter of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), urged Thai hotels to invest more in environmentally friendly services to retain European tourists concerned about their ecological footprint.
He was speaking at a recent low-carbon tourism seminar hosted by the German Agency for International Cooperation. "Large numbers of European tourists no longer go to Pattaya, as it has become a place just for gratification and entertainment. Phuket and Koh Samui too are seeing a disappearance of tourists," said Mr Udom, adding that Scandinavian tourists tend to be the most environmentally conscious.
He said Asian tourist numbers, particularly from China, may be increasing, but the biggest spenders remain the Europeans.
"The trend in Europe is tourists wanting to offset their carbon footprint after long hauls by staying in eco-friendly accommodations and travelling in the country of their destination for longer periods [which means they spend more but cause less damage to the environment]," said Mr Udom, who also owns Baan Talay Dao, a "green" resort hotel in Hua Hin.
He said European tour operators nowadays will supply clients only to environmentally friendly hotels that meet certain green standards.
"It's very important for Thailand to maintain the European market. If we don't go green now, then I can tell you these tourists will go elsewhere, as is already becoming evident," said Mr Udom.
Eike Otto, a German tourism and regional development consultant, said Thailand should also be aware that Europeans are travelling more in their home country to avoid leaving large carbon footprints in long flights to Asia.
"A trend started a couple of years ago in Germany in which people have opted to rediscover their own country and intentionally stopped taking long flights," he said, adding that tour operators are also urging people flying long distances to stay longer at their destinations.
"If the natural beauty goes, the tourism sector will be confined to price competition in which people visit the country because of its [cheap] price, and talking about sustainability will become extremely difficult.
"Tourism means different things to different people. It often means construction, but these days the trend is going against that," he said.
Construction may lead to a quick payoff for the builders and resorts, but it is a loss in the long term, especially with the Asean Economic Community in 2015 bringing many more players offering similar tourism products and services.
"[The country] needs ministerial-level action, both to control construction projects that disrupt the environment and to provide best practices," said Mr Otto.
Better destination management at the national level is needed in which innovative stakeholders have a platform to discuss, communicate and improve.
"The tourism industry changes quickly, and if you don't keep up with the changes, then you risk losing the market," said Mr Otto.
Meanwhile, many small businesses in northern Thailand have innovative ideas for building sustainable and low-carbon resorts, but these ideas are difficult to implement due to a lack of both advice and tax incentives, said Chirapol Sintunawa, vice-president and secretary-general of the Green Leaf Foundation, an independent organisation that certifies green standards.
Green Leaf was founded by six agencies including the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the THA and the UN Environment Programme.
Mr Chirapol feels the public sector needs to be more proactive in supporting innovations that foster sustainable tourism, but its contributions have been of little substance so far.
"How can the private sector be expected to care about the environment when state agencies themselves continue to turn a blind eye to the matter?" he said.
For example, the cabinet issued a decree requiring state agencies to use only environmentally friendly services when organising meetings, but this has been completely ignored, with cheaper services opted for instead, said Mr Chirapol.
He said of the 6,000 registered hotels in Thailand, only 260 carry Green Leaf certification.
The THA's Mr Udom said the Thai tourism sector should seriously consider whether it wants to confine itself to "gratification tourism" in which low prices determine who visits the country and how they spend their money.
"Or does it want to be more responsible to its people and the environment while also making financial gains?" he said.
"Thais like to come up with slogans and logos regarding sustainable development, but these are a very small part of the commitment. More difficult is moving things forward, understanding what the market demands, who our competitors are and what they are doing," said Mr Otto.
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- Writer: Soonya Vanichkorn