Perils of being most-visited city
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Perils of being most-visited city

Though Bangkok still does not suffer the level of tourist saturation that some smaller cities like Venice and Barcelona complain about, it should learn how to cope with increasing numbers of visitors.

"We are not concerned about over-tourism because our city enjoys an abundance of sites to offer to visitors," said Khachit Chatchawanit, deputy permanent-secretary of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. "The issue is not the how many, but the where.

"The density of visitors in some areas can sometimes exceed conformable levels, but the solution is not to ask people to stay away. We have to show tourists that there are many other places well worth exploring," continued Mr Khachit in a conversation last month with the Bangkok Post on the sidelines of the 8th United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Summit on Urban Tourism.

This event, hosted in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan's newly-named capital, aimed at "identifying the challenges cities face as tourist numbers continue to rise, and to explore solutions so this growth can be properly managed", as Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of UNWTO, described the event.

As a Mastercard ranking shows, with more than 22 million international arrivals in 2018, Bangkok has been the world's most-visited city for the last four years.

However, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, if we look at how much money these international visitors have actually spent in the city, Bangkok drops to the fifth position.

"Tourism congestion is not a city-wide problem, as it is mostly focused on specific areas or attractions. Urban destinations should seize the potential of technology to propose alternative sites to visit, and recommend lesser-known activities to do.

"Smart-city destinations -- places where innovation, technology, accessibility, sustainability and good governance manage visitors growth -- can also encourage tourists to return, and appeal to new visitors that may have not been attracted to the traditional charm of a destination before," Sandra Carvão, the UNWTO chief for Market Intelligence and Competitiveness, said.

As the declaration that emerged from the UNWTO Summit (called "Smart Cities, Smart Destinations") acknowledges, the growth of urban tourism also creates important challenges in terms of the use of natural resources, environmental changes, socio-cultural impact, pressure on infrastructure, mobility, peace and security, congestion management and the relationship with host communities.

Mr Khachit admitted that he is concerned about the impact tourism has on the city's environment, in particular the increasing amount of garbage generated by visitors, and how it contributes to the challenge of waste management faced by a city of more than 8 million residents.

"As we work to deal with waste more efficiently, more incinerators will be built to help us eliminate the around 10,000 tonnes of rubbish produced by the city every day," said Mr Khachit.

In a move with ramifications well beyond the tourism industry, Thailand will stop the use of single-use plastic bags in 2021. The country can learn a few lessons from Bali, given that the Indonesian island resort has been implementing a similar policy for almost a year now.

"If you visit Bali and for example, go to a supermarket, you will never get your groceries in a plastic bag," Nia Niscaya, Indonesia's Deputy Minister of Tourism Marketing, told the Bangkok Post in September during the UNWTO General Assembly in Saint Petersburg.

Yet the ban in Bali seems to be overlooked by many small businesses that cannot afford more expensive eco-friendly alternatives, while their customers do not always carry a paper or fabric tote bag.

The number of international travellers worldwide is estimated to increase by 400 million to exceed some 1.8 billion by 2030. As the planet's most-visited city, Bangkok is well positioned to break records in the global tourism industry over the next few years.

"The city still has the capacity to welcome more visitors," said Mr Khachit.

That seems like a foregone conclusion, because the real question is not the whether, but the how.

Javier Delgado Rivera is New York-based freelance journalist.

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