All's well that ends well
Airport 'kerfuffle' leads to positive exchange, possible improvements at immigration
Greetings from Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.
Well where else would you expect me to be filing from? I've just left a meeting with the top brass of the Police Immigration Bureau and Airports Of Thailand. You may have seen the pics in the media. My cynical friends Neil and Stuart were calling it an attitude adjustment but nothing was further from the truth and besides, they're just angry they didn't get my record collection as you're about to read.
It caps off a somewhat crazy week. Perhaps you read the news about the, er, kerfuffle that ensued thanks to my Twitter post, when, upon returning home from a few days in Luang Prabang, I was greeted with a line at immigration that resembled the line at a Justin Bieber concert.
I took a picture and tweeted it on my Twitter account usually reserved for teaching English. I thought that would be the end of it.
That tweet went viral and what came next was an avalanche of comments, mainly blasting the immigration process at Suvarnabhumi as well as a sizeable chunk blasting me. I have yet to read any of them in great detail, because I came down with a severe throat infection that rendered me voiceless for two days. When you're sick, you are more prone to reading Agatha Christie or Jackie Collins. The last thing you want to read is unhappy people shouting "send him back!".
In that tweet I made a comment in Thai that translated as "Suvarnabhumi: Gateway To Hell". This did not endear me to the general public who don't appreciate foreigners comparing their homeland to the scorching fires of Hades. The following day I did try to make amends, saying that Suvarnabhumi is in fact the gateway to my beloved home for the past 30 years, and that perhaps we needed to look at ways to solve the problem of burgeoning foreign arrivals.
According to the World Tourism Organization, Thailand is currently #10 in the world's most visited countries with 35.4 million visitors in 2017. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is expecting 40 million tourists this year. If that is the case, then Suvarnabhumi is facing a crisis as the crowds swell far, far beyond a Justin Bieber concert.
Last Friday, I received a phone call from Immigration at Suvarnabhumi. A friendly official asked if it was possible we could meet to discuss my tweet. No, they weren't angry at me, but they wanted to explain the steps they were taking to alleviate the crisis. We made a time of 2pm Tuesday to meet up at the airport.
I immediately jumped into action.
I have a friend, Stephen Riches, who is a bit of a debonair man about town, seen in all the trendiest bars around Happy Hour, networking and making new friends … two activities I wish I could do better. He also curates a couple of online expat groups so I asked if it would be possible to put the word out to expats -- how did they feel about the airport, and what suggestions were there to speed things along?
Stephen's informal survey was a gold mine of ideas. Many said that compared to other international airports (Paris's Charles de Gaulle, for example), Suvarnabhumi was not that bad. And indeed, if you google "Airports From Hell", Suvarnabhumi cannot be found on any of the lists.
Here are the problems in some semblance of order from that survey: closed immigration booths at rush hour, visitors not having filled out the arrival-departure card, too much manual keying-in of information in this new technological age, and a lack of English communication.
Recommendations included one queue for all, less paperwork, and special lanes for those already holding visas including retirees, permanent residents and people with work permits.
Some respondents took the opportunity to make some very disparaging remarks about yours truly. "Andrew is just an old bitchy expat," one person said. I take umbrage at that comment -- surely the correct adjectival sequence is "bitchy old". I have no argument with the allegation itself, though the respondent makes me realise I am not alone.
Others got me mixed up with other less salubrious Andrews. "Andrew Biggs? He was kicked out of the country years ago -- he posts overseas now." When Stephen suggested he was confusing me with someone else, the respondent shot back: "I'm not confused. I know him personally." No he doesn't.
Anyway, armed with this information, I went to the airport this afternoon.
On the way I had all sorts of friends and co-workers reach out to me, or rather, swoop like vultures. "Can I have your record collection?" my friend Neil asked. "Surely I get that!" shot back Stuart. "Along with your books. You can have his clothes." Meanwhile my Thai staff were asking what kind of khanom they should send me. I asked for a cake with a knife in it, but that joke didn't travel culturally in Thailand.
"Your complaint wasn't the first we've received. The truth is, we have people complaining all the time, including phu yai," said Pol Col Choengron Rimpadee, deputy commander of immigration at our meeting. "We're very aware of the situation."
The real problem is the growing number of arrivals.
For the last couple of years the number of travellers to Thailand has increased 6% annually. On the day of our meeting, for example, 78,000 people arrived at Suvarnabhumi alone. At the same time, 61,000 people left the airport -- a grand total of 126,244 travellers that needed to be processed in one day. That's 88 travellers per minute … or one and a half per second!
And for every traveller, by international standards there are eight steps that need to be checked and processed. That entire process takes an average of 50 seconds. This, to me, feels just about right -- if you are not smuggling drugs or running a terrorist cell, it's about a minute that you stand at the immigration booth.
Immigration has two things they must keep in mind -- safety and convenience. They need to speed through visitors, but not at the expense of sacrificing national security. "At any time, there are 53 million lost passports around the world," he said. "That means there are a lot of imposters out there, and they like to come to Thailand."
I guess that is the bad news; no matter how fast and convenient the system may be, it will always be slowed down by the cogs of national security. "Security is first," he said. "That's just the way it has to be."
The good news is that Suvarnabhumi is increasing both the number of lanes and number of immigration officers in an effort to solve the problem of closed lanes at peak hour. At Suvarnabhumi alone, the number of officers will increase from 800 to nearly 1,000, as well as an extra 12% of counters.
Other measures are being implemented to speed things up. Those with permanent residency can go through the automatic gates reserved for Thais, though we have to register at the airport. Oh! And I offered my services to help officers with their English, so it's true what my mother says -- every cloud really does have a silver lining.
And that, dear reader, brought my tweetstorm to a close.
Thanks to all who responded to Stephen's surveys -- your comments have been passed on to the relevant authorities. Perhaps sometimes we need to stir the pot a little.
Sadly for Neil and Stuart, my record collection remains with me, as do my clothes. And no need for the knife in my S&P blueberry cheesecake. That's OK -- just get me through that crowd a little quicker.
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