Free & Easy: A Core Concepts Tourism Analysis

An examination
Prepared by Chris Hibbard & Curtis Matwychuk-Goodman
December 3, 2008

Free & Easy: A Core Concepts Tourism Analysis

Tourism is, in no uncertain terms, “the means by which people seek psychological benefits that arise from experiencing new places, and new situations that are of temporary duration, whilst free from constraints of work, or normal patterns of daily life at home. (Ryan C., Recreational Tourism, Routledge, 1991).

Introduction

Free & Easy Travelers is a Canadian tour operator; offering short holiday adventures to a world of beautiful beaches, sparkling oceans and countless pleasures. Catering specifically to the youth market segment, Free & Easy transports adventurous groups and single travelers throughout Southeast Asia; specifically Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand. This particular paper will focus primarily on Free & Easy operations in the nation of Thailand; a predominantly Buddhist nation that has reaped economic benefits from tourism and the travel trade since the 17th century.

The product that Free & Easy markets truly sells itself. Thailand is an intensely beautiful part of the world that is considered to be laid back, friendly, cheap, and fun – a life altering experience in the ‘The Land of Smiles.’ These flexible vacations are ideal for post-secondary students or other young people who are hoping to take a break and get away for short periods at a time. Offering the opportunity to be immersed in adventure and ecotourism – rock climbing, jungle trekking and many other life affirming voyage. On each trip, small organized groups will visit seven destinations, traversing from Bangkok to the lower peninsula bordering Malaysia.

Travelers can truly feel ‘Free & Easy’ when traveling with this particular tour operator. With no scheduled daily itinerary, clients of Free & Easy are free to tour as they wish and make the most of each day. While exploring, travelers can expect to be immersed in Thailand’s unique culture. Utilizing the country’s own conventional transportation systems, visitors will explore this breathtaking, adventure-filled nation; taking in gorgeous landscapes, and meeting interesting characters in a warm and welcoming environment.

As a destination country, Thailand is shaped by four major regions, each one unique. Mountains in the north offer lush and tropical valleys, while the coastlines to the east and south feature some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Popular tourism centres in the central part of the country include Bangkok, renowned for providing unique Thai customs and crafts while satisfying many different appetites for many generations. The more history and culture orientated adventurer may enjoy Thailand’s northeastern plateau; peppered with fantastic monuments including the majestic Wat Hin Maak Peng forest temple complex, plus acres of natural parks teeming with wildlife.

Through this paper, readers will gain a richer understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by Free & Easy as a tour operator. It will include many aspects of tourism in Thailand, including tourist motivations for travel with Free & Easy; an overview of a typical 40-day Thailand trip, and a brief overview of the country as a tourist destination – from its colourful history to its dynamic and ever-changing personality. Furthermore we will examine the elements and efforts that must be integrated for successful tours and challenges the company faces in meeting sustainability goals. It will compare Free & Easy with Contiki, another youth-tour operator, enlightening readers to the realities and expectations of travel within Southeast Asia. Our discussion will conclude with the current issues facing Thailand and a forward-looking analysis of tourism prospects.

Motivations to Travel Free & Easy

According to Jost Krippendorf, a renowned German professor and founding father of sustainable tourism, once described travel as a conduit to freedom and self-determination, self-realization, and communication with other cultures; all of which broaden the mind, offering recuperation and regeneration, a chance to escape temporarily and “recharge the batteries so to speak” (The Motives of the Mobile Leisureman, 1989).

With Free & Easy, travelers have the opportunity to gear their own adventure specifically to their unique expectations and desires. One of the features that Free & Easy offers is a semi-structured itinerary; bridging the gap between inexperienced travelers and an exotic and foreign destination. This allows for the customization of each traveler’s individual journey.

…there is time to see whatever you want to see, go wherever you want to go, and talk to whoever you want to talk to. The guide is in love with Thailand and honestly wants to let you discover it on your own terms, through your own eyes. (Claeren, former Free & Easy traveler)

On a typical forty-day Thailand trek, adventurers travel in a small group, and many develop lifelong, lasting relationships. Each group is guided by two experienced Free & Easy leaders who know the country well. These guides are knowledgeable about geography, cultural history, local customs and traditions. The chance for self-discovery and gaining a broader perspective is inevitable, as a Free & Easy tour expands on each traveler’s pre-existing abilities and passions.

Free & Easy understands that travelling is a chance to get to know oneself that much better. While in Thailand, travelers can expect some very memorable events; from scuba diving and world-class rock climbing to yoga classes, bamboo tattoos and fire spinning. While touring with Free & Easy, travelers even have the chance to obtain massage certification, participate in Thai cooking classes, visit ancient Buddhist temples and even take elephant rides through the jungle, exploring a vital and vibrant ecosystem. Lest we forget, Thailand is also infamous for knowing how to have a good time, with Full Moon parties on the beach and a wide variety of nightlife venues to let loose in, and a favourable exchange rate on the Canadian dollar.

Many Free & Easy travelers are motivated by their interest in learning more about another culture. Through Free & Easy’s assistance, this learning is facilitated by the knowledgeable guides who have developed strong local relationships throughout the country, from the city of Bangkok to the temples of the lower peninsula. To this end, one important date on the itinerary involves cross-cultural communication by means of the Village School Project, which will be discussed in detail greater in the Sustainability chapter. All of this provides a safe and rewarding forum for escaping from the daily routine of life in Canada. Through Free & Easy, travelers may take a rest from everyday life for forty days, all the while immersed in a unique culture and learning from both individual and group experience – new every day.

Free & Easy and Youth Tourism

Trip Overview

The 40-day Thailand excursion begins with two days in Bangkok, orienting themselves with Thailand, touring the city and getting more acquainted with their new tourist companions. The group then ventures east to Khao Sok National Park, where they enjoy an amazing ancient rainforest and ride elephants, trekking through the jungle to shimmering waterfalls. The journey continues south around the coast to Railay, a popular beach destination near the world-famous Krabi, known for its white limestone cliffs and international rock climbing reputation.

Next, the trip heads to the islands of Koh Phi Phi, Kho Phagan and Koh Ang Thong. Koh Phi Phi was once a backpackers’ paradise but was struck by 2004’s deadly tsunami, effectively damaging the area’s appeal due to the high number of fatalities. Since being rebuilt the backpacker culture has returned. The island of Koh Phagan provides the longest port of residence on the Free & Easy Thailand tour, where travelers adapt to the true, laid back lifestyle of Thailand.

One of the greatest experiences on the trip is Koh Ang Thong Marine Park. This national park is home to 40 protected islands, only one of which provides accomodation and refreshment. An enormous natural cavern and a stunning viewpoint of the islands await those who are bold enough to hike to the top of a jungle trail. Those who choose to refrain can relax in the sun or paddle around the uninhabited island chain, before returning to Bangkok for the final days of the tour.

Target Demographics: Tourist Type

With a better understanding of the product that Free & Easy offers, we are able to delve deeper into the habits and trends of the target market. In doing this we draw on relevant literature from Stanley Plog (1974), Erik Cohen (1973), Nick Kontogeorgopoulos (2003) and Horak and Weber (2000). These academics have expanded the knowledge base of tourist categorization and motivation allowing for a better understanding of why people travel.

In Plog’s work “Why Destination Areas Rise and Fall in Popularity”, he introduced two differing types of tourist. These are allocentrics and psychocentrics. Plog’s research is easily plotted on a continuum which closely resembles a standard distribution chart and accounts for the varying degree of traveler motivations. According to Plog, allocentric tourists are best characterized by a search for the exotic, development of new friendships, sharpening perspectives, the desire for satisfaction and the sense of power or freedom. These traveler types can best be defined as adventurous, outgoing, self-confident, independent and needing little tourist infrastructure. The types of travel destinations allocentrics choose usually offer excitement in the unknown. Psychocentrics reside on the other end of Plog’s continuum, and are motivated by ego-enhancement, family or personal matters, a need for change, and/or the pleasures associated with planning, preparing and experiencing travel. A psychocentric tourist typically prefers to have destinations that retain some familiarity, rather than being overwhelmingly exotic and strange. These travelers require vast amounts of tourist infrastructure.

Free & Easy travelers can best be described in accordance with allocentric or mid-centric motivations. The clients which the tour operator seek and solicit are generally young and upwardly-mobile, displaying the psychographic characteristics of ‘actualizers’; placing great value on experience, often leading interest-motivated lifestyles and coming from a middle-class background.

Further developing on the motivations and roles of Free & Easy tourists we can draw from Cohen’s Sociology of International Tourism (1972). His typology expands on four distinct tourist roles: the organized mass tourist, the individual mass tourist, the explorer, and the drifter. As a tour operator, Free & Easy appeals to the individual mass tourists, who desire “a certain amount of control over his time and itinerary… (but) familiarity is still dominant.” It could be debated that because Free & Easy provides substantial services for clients, it is a more institutionalized organized mass tourist type. However, since the itinerary is minimally structured and travelers have substantial personal freedom, the trip is of particular interest to individuals seeking “variety, novelty, and strangeness.” Free & Easy aims to stay off the beaten track as much as possible, avoiding typical tourist zones while opting for more secluded beach locations. (Cohen, Toward a Sociology of International Tourism, 1972)

Building on Cohen’s findings was Kontogeorgopoulos, who explored the behaviours, expectations and motivations towards authenticity among tourist groups in Thailand. He identified three clusters of tourist types within the country: mass tourists, adventurers and backpackers. Utilizing this typology, Free & Easy accommodates both mass tourists and adventure travelers, since they are ‘‘capable of switching roles and interests”, tending to participate in multiple activities during their holidays (Ryan 2002). Kontogeorgopoulos’ studies suggest that travelers to Thailand tend to be curious individuals, middle-aged or older, with “high cultural capital”; educated and belonging to higher socio-economic classes. Accordingly, their main motives for travel are challenge, learning and self-improvement (2003). Based on these characteristics, Free & Easy travelers fit the profile in all respects except age. Free & Easy travelers are often between 18 and 27.
In the article Youth Tourism in Europe: Problems and Prospects, the concept and characteristics of youth tourism are described. Youth tourism involves young people aged 15 to 29 years (Horak & Weber, 2000). Contrary to the many negative misconceptions that are commonly associated with the youth tourism industry, namely spending little money, making short visits, having no loyalty to operators, and being generally unreliable and irresponsible, Horak and Weber’s research indicated the opposite. Young people in fact spend ‘above average’ amounts of money, ‘stay longer than average’ at given destinations, are “dedicated to deserving service providers”, and are ‘civilized and socially sensitive’ (Horak & Weber, 2000).

A major factor of youth tourism that Free & Easy capitalize on is mobility. A youthful group is able to cover more ground in a shorter timeframe; visiting more destinations, seeing more sights, and engaging in more activities. Because of this increased mobility, Free & Easy is able to visit secluded destinations, some known only by the tour guides from their own backpacking experiences. This unique and personal aspect contributes to the overall experience of the trip, and is a novelty which younger tourists often seek. Free & Easy pride themselves on offering this novel and unique approach to tourism as you will see in the following sample trip itinerary.

Tour Operator Comparison: CONTIKI

In comparing Free & Easy with other youth tour operators such as Contiki, a comparable operation, we find significant difference. This comparison is based on: destinations offered, price, availability and target market.

The varieties of trips offered by Contiki greatly outnumber the options that Free & Easy provide. Travelers are able to go almost anywhere in the world with Contiki, 32 unique trips are currently available – from one week excursions to month-long tours. Contiki’s destinations range from Australia to Africa. Free & Easy, on the other hand, limit their destinations to Southeast Asia – Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are its three main areas of exploration. Of these destinations, Free & Easy offer 40-day trips, with the option of adding another 20 to 40 days.

Many of the trip elements offered are similar for both operators. Both provide group travel, bus transportation, party atmosphere, the ability to customize activities along the way, and worry-free travel with the assistance of knowledgeable guides. Comparing price between the two operators can be difficult. Since Free & Easy primarily operates in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Thailand, we will limit our price comparison to trips of this nature. The standard Free & Easy 40-day trip is CAD $3940. This price includes all accommodations, three-day excursion transport, over-land travel expense, a hammock. The daily average for this trip is less than $100/day. In the closest comparison available, Contiki currently offers two unique trips to Thailand, both of which are part of package tours. Contiki’s “Asian Adventure” is a 14-day trip which highlights Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand – and costs CAD $1875. The second trip is a 28-day “Big Indochina Adventure,” which includes the three aforementioned countries plus Vietnam. Contiki offers this trip for CAD $3959, which equates to $141/day. It is important to remember that Contiki’s trip is twelve days fewer than Free & Easy’s, but offers the experience of visiting three additional countries.

When comparing the availability of tours offered by these two youth operators there are subtle differences. Free & Easy operates eight trips per calendar year coinciding with the trimester schedule of Canadian universities. Contiki’s service instead offers one trip each month for its ‘Indochina Adventure’. Departure dates are usually set for the first week of the month – more trips, more often. The group size for a Free & Easy trip is typically 16-24, with an average of 20 and a maximum of 25. A Contiki tour of Southeast Asia averages 25 per group. Where age is concerned, the Contiki travelers are between 18 and 35; whereas Free & Easy travelers are between 18 and 27.


Thailand as a Tourist Destination

A less tangible aspect of [Thailand’s] cultural diversity is the different world views of the various ethnic groups. It has been suggested that the Akha put particular emphasis on the past and ancestor worship, the Lisu on individualism, the Karen on harmony, the Hmong on independence, the Lahu on blessing and the Yao on propriety. (Lewis and Lewis, 1984) as cited by (Dearden, 1995)

Thailand is a renowned destination for international tourism. Locally known as Ratcha Anachak Thai, Thailand’s dominant languages are Thai and English. Tropical and humid, 32 degrees Celsius is the average yearly temperature. Approximately 95% of the country’s population call Buddhism their religion, which they practice openly under a constitutional monarchy government model. With a population of over 65 million people, this bustling and diverse nation borders Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia – all countries that have made international headlines, for better or worse, over the last century. The country is divided into 76 distinct provinces, each further divided into districts, sub districts and villages. (www.TourismThailand.org)

Though the country is home to a thriving textile and garment business and is the world’s second-largest producer of tungsten and third-largest producer of tin, the tourism industry accounts for a majority of the country’s income. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), in 2005 the country’s Prime Minister set lofty goals to double the current tourism figures – increasing foreign visitors to 20 million and the tourism revenue to over USD$19 billion, effectively doubling the then current $9.6billion. Today, it is estimated over three million people are employed either directly or indirectly by the tourism industry (TAT, 2008). This represents almost five percent of the total population, a significant proportion for any one sector.

The impact of Canadian tourists on the Thai economy represents 1.30% of total visitors in 2007. This means of the 1.3 million total visitors to Thailand, 17,037 were Canadian travelers . Less than one per cent (0.093%) of these were guided by the Free & Easy tour company. A strong Canadian dollar appears to have been a major factor in encouraging Canadian travelers to venture overseas. While in the country most travelers spent a great deal of time at the nation’s cultural attractions, most visiting “Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and the Andaman coast.” (TAT, 2008)

To better understand the direct impacts of tourism in Thailand, it is valuable to compare ‘now and then’ information. From 1987 to 1991, the Thai government “allotted money directly to TAT to engage in short and long term strategies to increase tourism. This included improving roads, monument conservation, and the general re-branding of Thailand as a cultural destination.” By 1992 the tourism industry employed approximately 940,000. (Peleggi, 1996)

In examining Thailand’s tourist industry it is useful to look to R.W. Butler’s (1980) model of Tourism Area Cycles. His model is characterized by five distinct points of an area’s life cycle of tourism. These are: exploration, involvement, development, consolidation, and then stagnation, decline, or rejuvenation. Subscribing to this model, modern Thailand has passed through the exploration and involvement stages. In the 1980s and 90s Thailand experienced phenomenal growth in accommodation facilities and reached a peak as an international tourism destination (Dearden, 1995). The peak was followed by a downturn thought to be closely related to the Asian Economic Crisis and the Persian Gulf War during the 1990s. (Esichaikul & Baum, 1998) This indicated that Thailand was now considered a mature-tourist destination; one that must consolidate its industry to avoid stagnation or a decline.

Resulting from this downturn, the TAT recognized the need for consolidation of the industry to re-brand and revitalize a faltering sector. To fill this need they pressured developers to pursue sustainability goals ensuring that supply is equal to, but no greater than, the demand for services within Thailand. This included an increased focus on high-quality tourist products like health-spas, five-star accommodations, and enhanced cultural sites (O’Reilly, 2006). Traditionally, Thailand had been known as a low-cost destination, accessible to a wide variety of travelers. The 2005 tourism strategy indicated a desire to:
… eliminate the Low Price Trap and move towards quality tourism via new marketing campaigns that positioned Thailand as a ‘Paradise on Earth’. The government also emphasized greater balance between marketing and development by using supply rather than demand as a driving force. (Phayakvichien, 2005)

The TAT is celebrating its 48th anniversary this year. According to the TAT, as of 2007 over 14 million foreign tourists annually contribute USD$12 billion to the Thailand economy. This has been attributed to the government’s sustainable development plans, with a revitalized interest in traditional festivals and history. The TAT now uses a very informative and easy to navigate website that offers a wealth of information to the public: history and travel-related statistics, visa and passport services, specific or seasonal travel recommendations, calendars of festivals and suggested tourist sites for day trips.

Thailand’s ‘private’ tourism sector offers guiding services, brochure distribution, guidebooks, training, education and more. The tourism industry in Thailand is well-developed, comprised of small, medium and large-scale businesses – be it renting a hammock to swing in or renting a penthouse suite overlooking the ocean. Many small hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and taxi firms are available to tourists, nearly 24 hours a day.

Travel Distribution System

… cheap accommodations are seen as one way in which encounters with the Other may be made possible. The reasons behind this perception include the fact that many of these inexpensive bungalows are run by families who come from that country, versus resorts owned by impersonal hotel chains and transnational conglomerations; the friendliness of the locals owning and running the places; and the close proximity to where these owners stay. (Muzaini, 2006)

Free & Easy, the company, was first imagined in the year 2000. A group of friends traveled to Thailand and recognized the opportunities and potentials that existed within the country for youth tourism. Desiring to share their experience with others, this group formed their first ‘official’ organized Thailand trip in 2002. Since then, Free & Easy have taken over 1000 travelers to Southeast Asia, branching out from Thailand specifically, now catering to Cambodia and Laos. The inaugural Free & Easy trip to The Philippines will take place in January, 2009.

Group activities are determined in a democratic consensus style. Because there are eight trips organized and operated every year, Free & Easy has had vast experience with local Thai tour providers. Subsequently, they have selected the best contractors for their unique group needs. Many of these needs are identified well in advance, based on activities selected pre-trip by travelers about to embark. An individual arriving in March may have selected to go SCUBA diving, caving, and jungle trekking. Free & Easy staff, having collected this information in advance, makes the necessary booking arrangements, rents all equipment and collects fees in advance. In this fashion, upon arriving in Thailand travelers have very little to worry about, with the financial considerations of each day’s activities already taken care of. Requiring an initial deposit of only $200, Free & Easy take it upon themselves to coordinate the timing and scheduling of all group activities and transportation that each requires. Hotel, cabana, hostel, bus and water taxi services are all coordinated by trip leaders, leaving only the costs of food, beverage and shopping up to each traveler. It is suggested that travelers bring at least CAD$1400 to cover these costs (Free & Easy Traveler, 2008).

The way that trip leaders are identified is through a graduated tourist guide program. On each trip, individuals are selected based on personality, apparent leadership skills, motivations and their ability to adapt and inspire. If selected, these individuals are recruited to return for a subsequent ‘training’ trip. Once trained, these individuals are equipped with the knowledge and skills to navigate Southeast Asia’s many treasures, pitfalls, and surprises. Having graduated from tourist to trainee, to official trip leader, these guides must possess intimate knowledge of a tour group’s expectations and of the traditions and regulations of the country itself. Free & Easy guides must be alert and informed when it comes to considerations regarding individual safety, insurance, Visa and passport requirements, appropriate vaccinations and on-site CPR certification.

Marketing

Free & Easy’s marketing strategy is specifically targeted at post-secondary institutions, their main ‘drawing’ zones located in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. This strategy includes a “buzz” campaign utilizing posters and visual marketing tools. Information sessions are offered twice each semester at all major institutions to answer questions, present testimonial evidence and collect deposits for upcoming tours. The website http://www.FreeandEasy.ca, provides a wealth of information above and beyond these on-site campaigns. The website also enables users to confirm trip details electronically, make payments online, and be introduced to fellow group travelers before even leaving Canada.

“Share the Love” is both a customer appreciation program and a viral marketing strategy, spreading the word about Free & Easy tours via word of mouth. Free & Easy alumni or returning travelers, are encouraged to refer others and share their own travel experiences. In doing so, they are able to receive credit towards their next Free & Easy trip, which can be saved up and applied to future trips. In this rewards program, one to five successful referrals are worth $100 credit. Six to 15 successful referrals warrants $150 in credit, to a maximum reward of an automatic free trip earned by signing up 25 or more new travelers.

Sustainability

“The Thai government, however, makes efforts to disperse tourism, developing and promoting additional destinations, particularly in the north and the north-east of the country. These efforts at dispersion go hand in hand with an effort to promote the country’s arts and crafts. This endeavour has a dual goal: to preserve and revive traditional culture and to create a new source of income for the producers…”
(Cohen, Touristic Craft Ribbon Development in Thailand, 1995)

Free & Easy aims to become a fully sustainable organization, contributing to the economic viability of the Thai people. As a relatively small tour operator it can be difficult to practically impact the local realities. However, two specific programs incorporated into Free & Easy’s travel program demonstrate a commitment to the betterment of Thailand’s socio-economic situation. The first of these involves a hammock.

A hammock is included in the base price of each travelers trip. Although it may not seem like a substantial contribution, this hammock is a symbol of the laidback Thai culture and contributes to the financial independence of the Mlabri tribe of Northern Thailand. The once nomadic tribe have struggled with the threat of deforestation that jeopardizes their traditional lifestyle. The hammocks are hand-woven and are considered to be some of the finest hammocks in the world. Each hammock requires four days of dedication and artisanship to create. Considering that Free & Easy purchases on average 160 hammocks each year, this equates to 640 hours of employment for the Mlabri. According to the Free & Easy website, the hammock program contributes directly to improved healthcare and social welfare for the community. The hammock project alleviates the tough fieldwork conditions or sweatshop labour alternatives that exist. These hammocks become permanent reminders of the whole Free & Easy experience, and inspire later conversation about Free & Easy, thereby providing additional word of mouth advertising.

Another program dedicated to the betterment of Thai society is the Village School Project. In recent years, a Thailand middle class has emerged pressuring more families to send their children to private urban schools. This essentially means that rural village schools are neglected, receiving less funding to the detriment of less-fortunate children. Since the summer of 2008, each Free & Easy tour devotes one full day to visiting these local village schools. The aim is to engage in cross-cultural communication and learning, where the travelers have an opportunity to teach English by sharing childhood games and singing favorite songs. In return, the Thai children’s enthusiasm and lust for learning are impressed upon the travelers through their own games and songs. This special occasion is memorable for both parties. At the end of each visit travelers are encouraged to donate via a collection jar. Funds raised go directly to the improvement of that individual school. To date, just two groups have single-handedly provided the resources necessary to build a wall separating the schoolyard from a busy road in front of the Ao Nang Village school. At Leompho Village School, a wall will soon be constructed to prevent wildlife from interfering in a student gardening project. (Free & Easy Traveler, 2008)

It is important to keep in mind that Free & Easy as a company appears to be a sustainable organization. The relatively small group sizes Free & Easy accommodates minimize environmental impact and Cohen’s transformation of attractions. The group sizes do not require large-scale infrastructure support. It is within the existing means of the country to provide accommodation, provisions, and transportation for a group of twenty people. Groups often experience traditional Thai accommodations – even so far as to utilize their hammock on a nightly basis while beachside. Group dynamics foster communal relationships – sharing of accommodations, transportation and food is common throughout the trip.

The easy-going nature that is promoted during the trip reduces the impact of the group’s environmental bubble, as described by Cohen (1972). An environmental bubble can be best described as the protective lens of security and bias that each traveler imports with them from their home country. Someone with a smaller ‘bubble’, seeks more physical and social involvement within a new landscape enjoying a richer, more satisfying cross-cultural experience. Someone with a large ‘bubble’ has a need for extravagance and exorbitant luxury. Free & Easy seeks to adopt a lifestyle more akin to traditional Thai living – simple, sustainable, renewable.

In pursuing sustainability, the Thai government encourages economic feasibility studies and area structure plans for all new projects (Peleggi, 1996). This is to ensure that facilities have adequate sanitation services and to discourage unfair or dishonest competition. Aggressive policies have been adopted by the government, intended to prolong the Tourist Area Cycle indefinitely. It is important to remember that with a vast majority of Thai people employed by tourism – that any and all damage to the tourist industry has a dramatic impact upon an approximated 3 million Thai citizens.

Current Issues

The world today is seen by many as uncertain, troubled, and unstable. Thailand and Southeast Asia are no exception. Thailand specifically, has garnered attention in recent years. A devastating tsunami, a history of political unrest and a media fascination with prostitution and illicit drug use. The close proximity of Thailand to Vietnam and the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia also cast a menacing shadow.

The catastrophic tsunami occurred in 2004 and wiped out a considerable portion of Thailand’s beachfront properties, most notably along the Andaman Coast. Because of the unexpected damage, and intense media coverage, tourism dropped off by 50% temporarily, but recovered within one year. Thai governing bodies have been working ever since to strengthen the management of protected areas in the country that have been damaged severely by both rapid industrialization and its subsequent pollution, and by the lingering effects of the tidal wave. Thailand officials have recognized and reacted, in order to protect and sustain the natural beauty of Thailand. (TAT, 2008)

In 1991, tourists from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong were highly conscious of political instability in the region, ultimately opting to travel to other destinations . This was in response to a military coup, one of many the country has seen over the last 100 years, resulting in a loss of tourism revenue by approximately USD$200 million. Bangkok’s premiere hotels reported a loss of nearly half their typical occupancy. (Chon, Singh, & Mikula, 1993)

The world-famous Full Moon parties on Koh-Phangan island are notorious for hosting ‘drug-vacationing,’ wherein marijuana, heroin, opium and other drugs were commonly found and openly available (Uriely & Belhassen, 2006). As Coen suggests, there is a high correlation between drug use and the ‘drifter’ type of tourist (1982). This reputation has had both positive and negative effects on Thailand’s tourism since the 1960s. As a result, the Thai government has cracked down on drugs – imposing stiff jail terms for even the most minor offenses. Travelers need to be aware of the nation’s heavy-handed stance against drugs, as all drugs have been criminalized and are subject to long-term incarceration. Essentially, while illicit substances may still be prevalent and commonly available, the risks involved are severe.

The emergence of AIDS in the Thai population during the late 1980s “coincided with the boom in international tourism”, and Thailand found itself facing a ‘sexual paradise’ image problem connected with AIDS and prostitution.” (Chon, Singh, & Mikula, 1993). This was a result of a powerful sex industry estimated to employ “between 200,000 and 300,000 female sex workers in Bangkok alone” ” (AIDS in Asia:, 2001). In 2003, authorities estimated that 570,000 Thai people live with AIDS or HIV, or about 1.5% of the country’s population (CIA, 2008). The risk of contracting AIDS has proven to be a very discouraging factor for international tourists over the last decade. The government has since adopted a more preventative approach to the problem.
In a recent controversial move, the government of Thailand has adopted a forced blood testing policy, requiring all state civil servants and employees of private companies to be tested for HIV/Aids (Treerutkuarkul, 2008). Additionally, a 2007 joint initiative between Brazil and Thailand “triggered a safeguard provision in international law to enable generic production of some second-line drugs, bringing down prices by 55 to 75%” (Han & Han, 2008).

Most recently Muslim protesters have seized control of Thailand’s two major airports, effectively stranding an estimated 100,000 travelers. The current airport closures have hit Thailand’s tourist industry hard, with an expected loss in the millions. The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated that the airport blockades are costing the country close to US$85 million dollars per day. (BBC – Asia Pacific, 2008) Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister has said that the “number of foreign tourists arriving next year (is) expected to drop by half, threatening one million jobs.” (BBC – Asia Pacific, 2008)

All of these issues are undeniable and pose potential deterrents to the regions tourism.

Discussion and Outlook

• For many years the government has funded the development and expansion of many tourist areas within Thailand. Based on the aforementioned discussion of Butler’s Tourist Area Cycle, Thailand has undergone a massive consolidation of the tourism industry. In reference to Cohen, Thailand has experienced a prolonged transformation of attractions and standardization of facilities, which has encouraged rapid expansion of the industry..
• Historically, Thailand tourism has been characterized by illicit activity and has been associated with hedonism, prostitution and illegal drug use. The government has since recognized this and has taken measures to eradicate opium production within the country; strengthening drug laws and enforcement measures. Bangkok’s notorious ‘Red Light District’, or Patpong still exists, and is still a commonly sought-out feature. Male tourists have a higher market share than females to essentially a 60/40 ratio . (TAT, 2008)
• How do you think that Free & Easy could expand their company in the future, without jeopardizing their minimal impact on Thailand’s culture?
• What new markets will attract Free & Easy’s future expansion?

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~ by Chris Hibbard on December 19, 2008.

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