Tourism prone to dodgy dealings
Earlier this month, a flight from China touched down in Bangkok with 269 passengers onboard. A few years ago, this would hardly be worth reporting, but this flight was celebrated with smiles and flowers to mark the arrival of Chinese tourists in Thailand after three long years.
And as the world marks Lunar New Year today, the Thai tourism market has received yet more welcome news as China announced it will resume large outbound group tours or flight+hotel package services to 20 countries, including Thailand, starting Feb 6. This came just days after a survey by travel platform Sojern revealed that the kingdom was the most searched destination for the Lunar New Year holiday period, with 1.8 million Chinese tourists expected to visit until Jan 28.
The pressing issue is whether the hospitality industry is ready to handle the influx. So far, as arrivals have ramped up during the high season, staff shortages have become a real problem. Businesses in popular destinations such as Pattaya, Phuket, and Chiang Mai have all reported labour problems. A survey by the Ministry of Labour of 32,359 businesses across 60 provinces showed that 1,817 operators needed staff ranging from receptionists, porters, waiters, cleaners, housemaids, cooks, kitchen staff, cashiers and accountants.
It's not hard to imagine why this is happening. Not all employees who were made redundant during Covid have returned, with some taking up new jobs or wanting more flexible work hours. To combat this shortage, the Department of Skill Development has launched a programme to upskill final-year hospitality students and make them job-ready, while hotels in the South are trying to attract short-term trainees or college students and inexperienced workers to plug gaps. But this is similar to applying a band aid to an injury that requires a cast.
President of the Thai Hotel Association, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, called on the government to relax the law to make it easier to hire foreign nationals to alleviate staff shortages. It's also asking for a revision of a law that prevents foreigners from working certain jobs, such as guiding tours. With tourism nearly back in full swing, both the government and the hospitality industry need to adapt to change and to move from protectionism to an open labour market.
After all, tourism isn't only just about the tourists but the infrastructure and people behind the scenes that make it possible. Without addressing or implementing practical solutions, the much-coveted tourism recovery is in danger of falling flat.
The government has used protectionist policy to ensure the tourism business stays in the hands of operators and local communities. That policy sounds good as long as there are abundant local workers but protectionism misses the target. Indeed, what the government should have done more is to fend off illegal investors -- many of whom illegally run "zero-dollar tourism" schemes to cater to Chinese tourists.
There is a new threat that the government needs to worry about: the invasion of Chinese investment in local businesses at Yaowarat. Last year, Yaowarat Road was ranked eight on the list of the world's "coolest" streets by Time Out magazine for its charming mix of history, food and local activities. There are complaints by food vendors in Bangkok's Chinatown, alleging Chinese nationals on tourist visas are using Thai nominees to run shops and eateries in the area, hurting local businesses.
The concern has drawn media attention to the point that Thosapone Dansuputra, director-general of the department, had to warn the public of the penalty for violating restrictions on foreign-run businesses in Thailand.
Despite the insistence that officials from the department and Labour Ministry regularly inspect foreign-owned businesses to ensure their compliance with the regulation, the reality on the ground is different. Many shophouses in Yaowarat are leased to new investors. Local vendors lamented that rent in Yaowarat is skyrocketing. Many goods vendors have moved to open shops in cheaper areas. Indeed, the foreign investor issue is not exclusive to Chinatown. At nearby Phahurat textile market, there have been reports of Chinese investors importing cheap goods from China. Make no mistake, local businesses must be open for new competition, but investors must comply with the law too.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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- chinese tourist