Not just a boys' game

Meet Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand's first female minister of Tourism and Sports

Her long hair is always simply tied in the back, and Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, 54, has never put thick make-up on her face. She walks quickly in her high-heeled shoes. She is punctual and skips lunch if it means she will be late to her next meeting.

Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul.

Kobkarn is the first female minister of Tourism and Sports, and the only minister in Prayut Chan-o-cha's Cabinet, with a background in the private sector.

She has 30 years of management experience in private companies, including her most recent as a chairperson of Toshiba Thailand and has also worked for several non-profit organisations, including the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand, the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai-Japanese Association.

Kobkarn aims to push for new development strategies for both tourism and sports to create more revenue from both sectors and focus more on quality travellers.   

What are the urgent issues you'd like to tackle?

To bring back visitors to the Kingdom. Although the total number of international arrival has started to pick up, I also want to see more quality visitors, meaning those with high spending power. We will also promote more local activities to encourage visitors to know learn about Thainess, things like how to cook Thai food, to learn muay Thai or going to rice fields to plant or harvest rice.

What is your policy on tourist safety?

I feel sorry whenever there is an accident or an incident involving tourists. No one wants it to happen. We have to learn from the past in order to improve our future. In the case of the murders in Koh Tao, we are working with locals to draft a "Koh Tao Model".

When I visited the island, I found out that the safety of tourists is only the tip of the iceberg. Koh Tao has faced major problems, including a shortage of fresh water and electricity, tonnes of garbage, coral bleaching and too many visitors for the small island to handle. So we are working with related parties to find out the right model for managing resources on the island and others like it, such as Koh Phangan.

What do you plan to achieve in your first 12 months in office?

New development strategies for both tourism and sports will be soon finished and must be executed properly.

We want to engage local communities, especially the younger generation. to help develop sustainable tourism.

We will also launch the "Pattaya Model" to change the reputation of Pattaya (which has long been related to the sex trade industry) to be the world-class sports destination like Phuket.

We focus on Pattaya because tourists relate the perception of Pattaya to the image of Thailand. If we want to make a change, we need to build a new reputation. Pattaya's mayor also agreed with us and we will promote sports facilities and both land and sea activities. Pattaya will become a destination where athletes can practise their sports all year round.

We are also promoting 12 destinations under the "12 Can't Miss Cities" campaign to encourage tourists to visit lesser-known towns (when compared to cities such as Chiang Mai, Phuket or Hua Hin). The 12 cities are Lampang, Phetchabun, Nan, Buri Ram, Loei, Samut Songkhram, Ratchaburi, Trat, Chanthaburi, Trang, Chumphon and Nakhon Si Thammarat.

How does your past work experience in the private sector help you in the minister's position?

One important factor about the success of promoting tourism is marketing and I have strong experience in the field. In my opinion, there are many good things about our country that we should repackage or relaunch to attract international visitors. We will do it quickly and one of the methods is to use social media and online tools.

The upcoming Asian Beach Games in Phuket (Nov 14-23) are an example. The will be a golden opportunity to reiterate to the rest of the world that Thailand is still beautiful and safe.

We will have 125 members of the media and 2,700 athletes from 45 countries, as well as their families, friends and fans, in Phuket. We hope that when audiences worldwide watch the Games or when the participants share their pictures of the beautiful beaches of Phuket on social media, more visitors will want to come to Thailand.

Do you think if sports becomes an individual ministry, the country's sports will become more developed?

Not quite. It may be yes and no. If the aim is for excellence, the answer is yes.

But in my opinion, sports and tourism work well together in one ministry. Take Taiwan, for example. Its ministry is in charge of not only tourism and sports but also culture. We can use sports to promote tourism and vice versa. 

What is your favourite place in Thailand?

I like Nan the most because it is beautiful and serene. The town of Nan is small, but full of historical places. Its forest is green and the locals are very nice, with a strong community.

They announced their intention to make the town one of the safest cities in the world, and I believe they can do it. I have been to Nan many times and always love it.

In the future, we will launch the "Nan Model" as an example of sustainable tourism of to other cities.

What is favourite sport?

I like jogging. I regularly jog in Suan Lum in the morning.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Position: Travel writer