Commentary

Glitzy tourism campaigns gloss over Asia's glaring inequalities

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Emily Judem

BANGKOK, Thailand—The shrinking numbers of visitors still coming to protest-riven Thailand may well be surprised to hear that this troubled nation remains one of the most unequal places in Asia. But in many ways that inequality—and most critically unequal access to essential infrastructure, education and opportunity—lies at the heart of the challenges facing not just Thailand but nations across the Asia and Pacific region.

Thailand is only surpassed in Asia by Hong Kong in terms of income inequality, according to the CIA World Factbook’s latest rankings by Gini Coefficient—a common measure of inequality.

By some measures, Thailand ranks as the 12th most unequal place worldwide. Among other Asian nations or regions for which data is available, the worldwide rankings in order of most unequal to least unequal distribution of family income include Hong Kong (11th), Papua New Guinea (18th), Singapore (26th), China (29th), Malaysia (33rd) and the Philippines (42nd).

Drill down further into the data and it is clear that although Asia’s ascent has helped drive the global economy in recent years, the region remains home to two-thirds of the world’s poor. An estimated 1.7 billion people struggle to live on less than two dollars a day, according to the Asian Development Bank.

But someone living outside of the region would have to skip the tourism promotions airing on CNN and other international channels to see this.

Slick marketing images of the best-intended tourism campaigns dominate the region and obscure the details around what is actually happening on the ground.

A first-time visitor to Asia may be tempted by the campaigns and the perceptions they seek to promote: "It's more fun in the Philippines," "Japan–endless discovery," "China like never before," "Wonderful Indonesia," and "Incredible India!"

These are just a few of the promotional efforts used to brand Asian destinations and draw international travelers (and how about "Amazing Thailand," “Malaysia, truly Asia,” and “Vietnam–timeless charm"? Even the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan is on the act, declaring, "Bhutan–Happiness is a place").

Pretty pictures and carefully staged commercials should not supersede due diligence. Travelers visiting destinations marked by growing divides between the rich and the poor should ask themselves how “amazing” Thailand can really be—or for that matter, how much “more fun” you can really have in the Philippines—on two dollars a day?

Bangkok, in this most unequal of Asian countries, is a case in point.

Singapore Airlines has canceled flights to the Thai capital in response to street protests, and some hotels are now seeing 20 percent occupancy rates—that’s well below the usual quarterly 80 percent rate reported by the Thai Hotels Association.

This year’s high season may prove to be a repeat of 2010, which saw visitor arrivals and dollars plummet after the then government conducted a deadly crack down on anti-government demonstrators.

While demonstrations and travel warnings might come and go, government and tourism officials in the long-term need to incorporate a healthy dose of accountability into their process as they brand and market Asia to the world.

Asia's governments also should not avoid the necessary actions to understand and to address economic conditions, including inequality of opportunity, which can undercut the entrepreneurs and small and medium sized enterprises critical to any nation's tourism industry in the long run.

This should include openly and transparently bidding out development opportunities, putting in place clear land titling and investment rules and regulations, and increasing competition in often-sheltered industry segments such as aviation and hospitality.

Investment in national or city “branding” campaigns must also do more to benefit a broader array of communities and citizens than the few local, vested interests—more than simply padding the bottom line of a handful of hospitality conglomerates.

But government and tourism bureaus say such campaigns are a good investment, not just helping fill seats on planes and hotel beds, but also driving much needed employment opportunities. Accompanying their appeals for foreign assistance or industry funding, governments in Asia say such campaigns are an integral part of a development portfolio that aims for all-inclusive economic growth.

But, more needs to be done. A place to start is to require tourism campaigns to be research-based, and to have clear goals and baselines.

Such data will help government and industry officials determine if allocated money is being wisely used and decide whether further funding is warranted.

For example, why not start by having money targeted to market a particular destination linked with that area’s employment statistics or business growth? It is a simple way to monitor return-on-investment, especially if tourism is meant to provide jobs. Additional requests for campaign funding can then be granted or denied based on whether the set employment goals are met.

Another option, according to the UK advocacy group Tourism Concern, is to invest in community-based tourism projects that give local residents a voice into what type of tourism projects are planned for their communities—how they are managed, and how to ensure a fair share of profits go back to the community.

Granted, these projects are small in size and pale in comparison to the mega-projects favored by developers, but not every traveler is interested in staying in walled-off resorts or destinations that have lost their distinctiveness in the pursuit of modernity.

Campaigns must be more than vanity projects for officials seeking industry dollars from hoteliers and industry members who are unable to say no. Perception must ultimately meet reality in the best campaigns.

When Thailand first launched its “Amazing Thailand” campaign in 1998, the kingdom was contending with the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis.

More than 15 years and one global financial crisis later, Bangkok may well lose its ranking as the world’s most popular destination city amidst the latest street-blocking protests by tens of thousands intent on bringing down the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In the end, a “re-think” is needed to see how marketing Asia can both better reflect today’s realities and also be leveraged to tackle the region’s very real inequalities in places like Thailand. Actually pulling off this balancing act—now that would be truly amazing.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo, a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia, is an associate of RiverPeak Group. They can be followed on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @JoseBCollazo

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "Voices." The mission of "Voices" is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.