Tourist magnet
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 26, 2019 - 12:00am

BANGKOK – It was dark and stormy when I arrived Saturday afternoon in this Thai capital, and traffic was slow as my limo taxi entered the city. But the slog though traffic was made more bearable by the high-speed wi-fi in the vehicle, with the apt connection name “welcome.”

The driver was also quick to offer me three wire connections that could be plugged into portable devices, which he said I could use “for chat.” As I don’t engage in chats on whatever device, I didn’t know what that was about. But the menthol candies he offered when I began coughing, that helped. When it comes to tourism, the Thais aim to please. 

Tourism is the lifeblood of this country. At the end of June, the head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand was despairing over a slowdown in tourist arrivals in the first half of the year. The official blamed the strong baht, the US-China trade wars, uncertainties over Brexit and a global economic slowdown for the lower-than-expected arrivals. The worrisome figure? “Only” 20 million foreign visitors, who spent a trillion baht on top of the 560 billion baht spent by domestic tourists. (As of Friday, one Thai baht was officially pegged at P1.70.)

Thai officials are optimistic that they can still achieve the target foreign arrivals of up to 45 million for 2019 – slightly up from last year’s eye-watering (for us Pinoys) 38.5 million.

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I know, Thailand has a tourism edge over its Southeast Asian neighbors because of its distinctive culture. But it has also not been complacent. It has combined aggressive global marketing with the preservation and enhancement of its culture as well as the provision of tourism infrastructure, from a wide range of reasonably priced accommodations to roads, telecommunications, mass transport systems and a world-class regional air hub.

Thai cuisine has gained such global distinction that there is now a Bangkok Michelin guide. It was a big deal for the Thais when they succeeded in growing white truffles in the highlands of Chiang Mai, disproving the belief that truffles don’t grow in the tropics. This was in September 2017. Today they are positioning to compete with the world’s best white truffles, from the town of Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region (a kilo can cost from $3,500 to $7,000).

Traffic is still awful in Bangkok, but the network of light railways running overhead and underground (yes, they beat us to a subway) makes it easier for travelers to move around and visit the numerous tourist destinations right here in the capital. 

All the destinations are packed day and night with tourists: temples, all types of dining areas, the bargain shopping malls, Chatuchak and various specialty markets.

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I think Divisoria, with a bit of improved packaging, can compete with Chatuchak. The city of Manila also has the Dangwa flower center, which can be a major tourist destination. Maybe Mayor Isko can add beautification and destination packaging to his clean-up campaign.

It’s good that lifestyle guru Martha Stewart visited the pearl merchants of Greenhills Mall. That pearl center is unique and deserves better marketing.

Thailand has also modernized its iconic tuk-tuks. Instead of changing the design of the tricycle, however, the traditional look has been preserved, the paint jazzed up, and electric-powered engines installed starting about two years ago. E-tuk-tuks are becoming ubiquitous all the way to Chiang Mai.

The tuk-tuks can pick up passengers even in five-star hotels; they are in fact in demand among foreign tourists. 

Bangkok has also taken another step ahead of Manila by fielding hop-on, hop-off sightseeing buses. Called Siam Hop, they aren’t the double-decker red buses that are ubiquitous in Europe, the US and several other advanced destinations. On Expedia, a one-day pass on the red orange, single-deck Siam Hop bus could be purchased for as low as $10.52 as of the weekend.

User reviews as of last month weren’t too good. Passengers complained that maps and information weren’t accurate and the horrid Bangkok traffic made it tough to match the information with the stops. But if you’ve been in this city before and have time to kill, the ride might be worth it.

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In Metro Manila, it’s good that the subway project is finally getting underway, and that it’s being undertaken by the Japanese, who are experts in earthquake- and flood-resilient infrastructure.

Last March, Indonesia beat us to a subway, opening its first system in congested, traffic-choked Jakarta. I think the Indonesian capital is the only place in this part of the planet where the traffic mess is worse than in Metro Manila.

An Indonesian journalist here told me that their President Joko Widodo is seriously considering moving the capital to Borneo, because he thinks Jakarta is hopelessly mired in urban blight. The massive expense is the biggest obstacle to this plan.

Thailand, as far as I know, has no such plans. Where their powerful king lives, I guess, is where the capital is located. But the country has developed several other tourist destinations outside the capital, such as the highlands and the province of Phuket with the popular beaches.

These destinations are easily reached by air from Bangkok. Air connectivity is one of the biggest tourist assets of Thailand. From Suvarnabhumi International Airport, there are direct flights to key gateways all over Europe, Asia and other parts of the planet.

Leaving Manila through the NAIA Terminal 1 at around noon on Saturday, I was pleased to breeze through immigration and the security check. The wait at Bangkok immigration was much longer, but perhaps this was because there were just hordes of travelers arriving constantly at Suvarnabhumi, and there were long, snaking lines to the many immigration counters.

I still couldn’t help feeling a pang of envy as I walked through the numerous, fast-moving travelators and past the many restrooms all over the vast airport. The restrooms were clean and with all the amenities.

Beyond feeling envious, I prefer to look on the bright side, at infrastructure development projects that are now ongoing or in the pipeline. We should be able to catch up.

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