Bangkok City tourism: Desperately seeking smile

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BANGKOK (eTN) – The Thailand Travel Mart (TTM) is a great place to get the latest updates on trends, strategies and products that will shape for the year to come the direction of Thailand’s tourism

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BANGKOK (eTN) – The Thailand Travel Mart (TTM) is a great place to get the latest updates on trends, strategies and products that will shape for the year to come the direction of Thailand’s tourism industry.

In a course of a day, media from all over the world heard a series of press conferences where various tourism bodies will reveal their secrets. And for once, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has decided to join the media session. The BMA sent its deputy governor in charge of social affairs, Mrs. Taya Teepsuvarn.

In front of a couple of dozens of media, mostly from the trade, Mrs. Teepsuvarn delivered an impassioned speech on the beauty of Bangkok. We learned that Bangkok has delicious Thai restaurants, that a visit to the Royal Palace or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was a must, that the Thai capital is a great city for shopping, entertainment, medical treatment, all of that offering great value for money. Fair enough to spend 20 minutes to tell what the audience probably already knew, as it was comprised mostly of let’s travel trade journalists.

Then, Mrs Teepsuvarn talked about two initiatives for tourists: the launching of a Bht 150 day-pass valid for all boats riding on the Chao Praya River and the “Bangkok Smiles Card,” a special discount scheme for visitors with the participation of some 1,000 companies and businesses. Due to come on the market in the next two months, the card will be used for tours, spa packages, golf activities or even medical treatment. At least, these were news.

The “Smiles Card” supports Bangkok new slogan, “City of Smiles.” And this is where the trouble started. I dared to express that the slogan lacked imagination. Using the word “stupid” may have been a bit callous, but it an egregious attempt at expressing discontent.

But frankly, such a slogan is only a reproduction of the previous decades-old slogan for Thailand, dubbed for years – if not centuries- as the “country of smiles.” The problem is that the entire world saw over the last months scenes of violent protests on TV with people throwing stones at the current prime minister, torching public busses and damaging public property. Would have not the previously used slogan “City of Life” been more accurate then? Bangkok is a great cosmopolitan, hectic city, full of incredible sights, smells and sounds. Why not to communicate on an energetic vibrant Bangkok that would better embrace the spirit of the time? Why not also to seek the advice of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which just came up with a very intelligent new marketing concept?

My remarks obviously shocked Mrs. Taya, who demonstrated immediately the inaccuracy of the slogan. Her smile instantly vanished and she replicated with an angry impatient tone that it was only my opinion and that Bangkok people found the slogan wonderful.

I asked if the BMA took any international consultant to give birth to this “sparkling” sentence. Mrs. Taya said that it had been done internally. I took this remark for an explanation.

The problem is that Bangkok City Administration has an annual budget for tourism of Baht 200 million (US$ 5.8 million), half the budget of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism. And you wonder what they do with the money beside printing nice brochures and finding “catchy” slogans. Tourism initiatives from the BMA are otherwise hardly visible.

Mrs. Taya explained that they are 27 information centers that are not easy to find around. I personally know only one at Siam Paragon. Asked if staff was multilingual, she replied that they all speak at least English. But why not using tourism funds to also train staff to speak Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, French or German?

Free bicycles for tourists have also already been announced in early 2007. Finally, there are some 300 bikes to be rented around Rattanakosin Island but projects to expand it all over Bangkok have still not concretized. Well, with no proper bicycle lanes, it is probably better to do without bikes for the time being. The BMA is, of course, not the only one to share the blame for this slow move.

The audience indeed got the true explanation about the meaning of “SMILES”. Be ready this is a tricky one: S for Safety, M for Money value, I for International standards – she had to add about Medical treatment-, L for Love and Warmth and E for Eternity (no joke!). At least, BMA tourism professionals show that they are not completely lacking imagination.

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