Hopes pinned on TagThai potential
Officials are counting on the integrated app to improve the tourist experience
When the mobile app TagThai becomes available for service in April, it could be the country's first official digital platform created collaboratively by a number of public and private agencies to bolster tourism and stakeholders in this lucrative industry.
A total of 49 state and private bodies pooled their resources to develop the app, which is being developed to digitalise businesses throughout the Thai tourism industry, enhance competitiveness among local operators and help reduce dependence on overseas travel agencies.
The first version of the app comes in three languages -- Thai, English and Mandarin -- and is aimed at providing local and foreign tourists access to useful information about the country, assistance and attractions, as well as products and services and special promotions. The second phase, which is scheduled for some time in June, will offer access to more marketplaces and privileges.
Alliances from 19 state agencies and 30 private organisations have agreed to set up Thai Digital Platform Social Enterprise Co to support the project and provide data to make the app an efficient tool for modern travellers exploring Thailand.
When the TagThai app was announced earlier this year, Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said it was created under the Digital Tourism Platform initiative, a cooperation between the public and private sector to promote tourism and Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions).
The platform will be designed to link databases from allied partners and throughout the value chain in the tourism industry. "It will be the nation's platform for travellers to make bookings, online payments, buy travel insurance, get travel advice and lodge complaints," the minister said.
The app is meant to suit the growing segment of free independent travellers (FITs) who are young, tech-savvy and like to use their smartphones, he said.
"Tourists' journeys, spending and feedback via the app will be gathered for data analytics to improve Thailand's tourism further," Mr Weerasak said.
Tourism has become a major source of income for the country over the last decade, generating some 3 trillion baht from both domestic and international markets last year, with direct and indirect tourism GDP last year accounting for 18.1% of total GDP.
TagThai -- pronounced "takthai", meaning "greetings" in Thai -- was developed by a team led by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Kasikorn Business Technology Group, a unit of Kasikornbank, with an initial investment of 30 million baht for the technology.
Kalin Sarasin, head of the Digital Tourism Platform and the chamber's chairman, said the app will be the main platform to connect tourism information and services, offering foreign visitors more convenience and comfort when travelling to Thailand while locals, especially small and medium-scale entrepreneurs, will have the chance to enter the tourism sector.
For big operators, such as hotels and tour agents, the app will be an additional channel to promote their business, Mr Kalin said.
The creation of the app will showcase Thai value-added concepts that combine community cultures with new ideas and innovations to help improve local economies, he said.
Cooperation from 49 partners, including nearly all ministries in Thailand, the Immigration Office, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Airports of Thailand, local airlines, the Thai Hotels Association, the Thai Bankers' Association and the Association of Thai Travel Agents, will reinforce the app's role as an all-inclusive and efficient platform for the Thai tourism industry.
Less reliance on foreign OTAs
Pornthip Hirunkate, vice-president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (Atta), said the TagThai app will be an additional channel for association members to broaden their market, especially to FITs, whose numbers are on the rise.
FITs from Western countries are a common sight, but Thailand has also become a key market for FITs from China, most of whom are younger travellers, she said.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry forecasts the number of FITs from China to make up as much as 63% of an estimated 11.6-12 million Chinese tourists visiting Thailand this year. The number of FITs was 59% last year, out of 10.5 million Chinese visitors.
Visitors from China represent about one-third of a total 38.27 million foreign tourists in Thailand last year, a figure that is projected to reach some 41 million this year.
Mrs Pornthip said that while FITs dominated most Chinese outbound tourists in 2017, some 40% of them are categorised as semi-FIT, representing travellers who choose to book smaller parts of their trip in modular packages, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.
The institute said that out of 130 million Chinese outbound travellers in 2017, just 20% of them travelled as packaged tourists, 40% were full FITs and 40% were semi-FITs.
Looking at the distribution, Mrs Pornthip said it's vital for Atta members to digitalise their businesses to accommodate trends by adding the TagThai mobile app to expand into this market group, in addition to putting their businesses on online travel agency (OTA) platforms.
Atta counts more than 1,400 members operating inbound and outbound tours.
"Tourism operators still need to expand through OTAs, but we hope the new mobile app will enable them to rely less on foreign platforms," Mrs Pornthip said.
A source in the tourism industry said Thai operators have complained that OTAs charge high commissions of 8-10% and sometimes as much as 25% for products such as air tickets, accommodation and tour packages that are available on their platforms.
Most OTAs have solid financial operations, lending them bargaining power when sourcing a large volume of services for their platforms.
The source said that although Thai operators benefit from partnering with OTAs in broadening markets, they earn less -- which could result in substandard services offered to clients.
"This could jeopardise business and Thai tourism in the long term," the source said.
Popular OTAs in the Thai market include Agoda.com, Booking.com, Ctrip, Hotels.com and many more.
Online hotel booking
Supawan Tanomkieatipume, president of the Thai Hotels Association, said a Hotel Online Booking menu is offered on TagThai to help users find hotels that have operating licences in order to ensure safety and service standards.
The association has more than 900 members who run hotels across the country.
Mrs Supawan has urged hotels who are not members of THA to join the project and list their properties on the mobile app in order to expand market access and earn income from online channels.
Without paying a commission to OTAs, hoteliers can receive higher income and the government can get more tax revenue for use in developing attractions in each community.
In order to raise global awareness of the TagThai app, promotion on state channels has been suggested, especially Thai Airways International and the Tourism Authority of Thailand website.
While the authority has several sites and mobile apps for tourists, it has pledged to support TagThai in the hopes of attracting "first visit" tourists and promoting secondary provinces.
2019 plans outlined
According to the Tourism and Sports Ministry, total revenue of 3.33 trillion baht in tourism income is projected for this year, including 2.21 trillion from international tourists, up 10%, and 1.12 trillion from domestic travel, up 5%.
Some 41.1 million international arrivals are expected this year, up 7.5%, while locals are forecast to make 166 million trips, up 3%.
Chinese free independent travellers are on the rise in Thailand. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Apart from the new mobile app, the ministry has outlined four main policies to develop tourism this year, encompassing measures to build up tourist confidence in safety standards, enhance cleanliness and convenience at all destinations, and invest with the private sector to build basic infrastructure to support the tourism industry.
Tourism in communities and 55 second-tier provinces is still key this year after last year's tax incentive to lure tourists to visit smaller provinces saw success. There were 90 million visitors to secondary provinces last year, up from 50 million in 2011, while revenue rose to 266 billion baht from 116 billion.