The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Conservation's (DNP) move to cancel the e-ticket system last week in order to reinstate it yesterday casts a much needed spotlight on the way the state conservation agency handles revenue it collects from entry fees at national parks across the country.
Last week, DNP director-general Atthapol Charoenchansa saw many questions asked after he announced that the e-ticket reservation service would end on Dec 1 -- or last Friday. The DNP promised to return money to those who had already paid.
After facing a barrage of criticism, the DNP made a full U-turn yesterday, saying it will extend the digital booking service for another three months.
The DNP chief reiterated that the agency will hold a new bid next year to select operators to handle the e-ticket system for national parks. The DNP's chief reason why the current e-system needs scrapping -- despite having been in use since the Covid-19 pandemic -- is because it is not fully functional and that makes the digital platform not as popular as it should be.
Currently, the e-ticket system is available for only six major national parks -- Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park in Krabi, Ao Phang Nga National Park in Phangnga, Mu Koh Similan National Park in Phangnga, Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima, Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi and Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai. These six are along 140 national parks open to the public.
It remains a mystery why the DNP did not find an operator earlier instead of trying cancelling the service suddenly. Make no mistake, the e-ticket system is far from perfect. The DNP should fix the problems in the system instead of just cancelling it.
This sparked questions from the media and critics about the DNP's actual motive. Lest we forget, the department has been questioned about the actual amount of income it gets from entry fees.
The issue made headlines a few years ago after the Environment Ministry launched a pilot project to collect entry fees and control the amount of visitors to Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park.
Despite being a popular destination with 1.6 million visitors in 2015 -- revenue only amounted to 70 million that year. Revenue jumped to almost 370 million baht in 2016 after the department required all tourist boats register and have all entry tickets verified.
The DNP introduced e-tickets in 2018 to manage visitor numbers and deal with corruption. Truth be told that the digital service was not the DNP's brainchild. The e-ticket system was proposed by the State Audit Office and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which claimed it increases transparency in revenue collecting.
The DNP's public statements on the e-ticket system are inconsistent. Last year, a former DNP chief praised it for improving financial transparency. It was reported that revenue from entry fees jumped considerably. The e-ticket system also helps DNP control visitor numbers.
The DNP's move to keep the digital system is just face saving. It is about time the government and corruption watchdogs launched a serious probe into this agency to find out the truth about visitor revenue figures.
But that's not enough. The government should create a national body to take care of bidding and e-ticket systems for national parks. The DNP should instead concentrate on conservation and protection only, which was the original purpose of the agency right from the start.