Thailand: Land of smiles or tourist trap?

Sun Jul 22, 2012 9:16pm EDT
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By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Two Canadian sisters die mysteriously in their rented bungalow on an idyllic Thai island, believed poisoned. Less than a week later, a 60-year-old Australian woman is stabbed to death in a botched robbery outside a luxury resort in Phuket.

Their deaths are the latest in a tumult of violence and intrigue to shake tourism in postcard-perfect Thailand, raising questions over whether it is squandering a prized asset by failing to protect travelers arriving in record numbers.

Other headlines are less dramatic but equally troubling: taxi driver mafias, transvestite thieves, pollution, tourist brawls, traffic accidents, and at airports, radar glitches, flight delays and long immigration queues.

"The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) think numbers are going up so people must like it here, but the problem is the quality of their visit has gone down," said Larry Cunningham, Australia's Honorary Consul to Phuket, an island described by travel guide Lonely Planet as "one of the world's most famous dream destinations".

The government has vowed to tackle "mafias" in tourist areas, while in February, Cunningham appealed to Phuket's government to stop jet-ski operators who hire thugs and demand compensation for equipment damage renters did not cause.

Last year, a German television show broadcast footage of sewage pumped into the sea at popular Kata and Karon beaches.

The problems have so far failed to dull Thailand's centuries-old exotic allure. Its palm-fringed islands, gilded temples, spicy cuisine and racy nightlife helped draw 19 million visitors in 2011, generating 776 billion baht ($24.5 billion) in revenue, up 31 percent from 2010, ministry data shows.

Even so, tourism's contribution to GDP has barely increased since 2003 and now hovers at 6 percent. And with unspoiled destinations in neighboring Myanmar opening up, Thailand is under pressure to decide what type of tourism it wants.   Continued...

A tourist (R) participates in a water fight with local Thais during the Songkran Festival celebration at Khaosan road in Bangkok April 12, 2012. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom