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An Open Response To William Heinecke

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William Heinecke penned the following below in an open letter in the Bangkok Post the other day.  Mr. Heinecke is the CEO of a major Thailand-based tourism company.  I wanted to respond.  

 

An open letter to ambassadors based in Bangkok 

 
As CEO of one of the largest companies in Thailand and more so as a concerned citizen, I feel it is my duty to speak up on behalf of our 40,000 employees and those whose livelihoods depend directly and indirectly on tourism — one of the vital drivers of the Thai economy.
 
Minor International and numerous other operators in the tourism sector have, over many years, laid the foundations for what is considered the best tourism infrastructure in Asia which provides livelihoods for millions throughout the country.
 
Although the ongoing demonstrations are limited to certain parts of Bangkok, the rest of the city and the overall country for that matter is safe to visit.
 
However, the travel warnings and restrictions issued by some foreign governments incorrectly dispel this fact.
 
Tourists have never been a target in the protests and to this end all airports in Thailand remain fully operational and hotels and tourist attractions across the Kingdom continue to welcome guests as usual.
 
 
One does not need to be targeted to be harmed.  I'm sure the two children who died in the Big-C bombing were not targeted.  I know he wrote this before the Big-C bombing, and I'm not trying to sensationalize what I'm saying, but when violence continues to show a pattern of escalation, innocent bystanders can and do get hurt.  
 
Declaring Thailand safe because tourists are not targets is not doing anyone any service.  Richard Barrow has been doing the same up until today too.  All of his messages are that things are safe as long as you avoid protest areas.  I'm glad that Mr. Barrow has finally decided to begin advising people that they may want to skip Bangkok.  
 
 
But "safe" is not binary.  It is not black or white.  Safe is relative.  Safe is something you measure on a scale of 1 to 10.  
 
The ambassadors that Mr. Heinecke is trying to appeal to understand that because they work in security where threats and risks are measured on a scale.  They issue travel advisories and travel warnings when risks rise above an acceptable level.  If you read the US Embassy's travel warning for Thailand there is nothing said that is factually incorrect.  
 
 
I've read similar advisories from other embassies and they all pretty much follow the same procedure.  
 
One also needs to keep in mind that his words appear alongside people cautioning about the outbreak of civil war or a bloody coup in Thailand.  However likely or unlikely either of those scenarios are, the fact that locals are talking about the possibility of them happening doesn't really sound like what most people would consider to be a "perfectly safe" place to travel to.  
 
 
The people of Thailand are extremely welcoming of tourists and I am certain that visitors are in far more danger of being harmed in any major European or American city than they are here in Bangkok.

 

 

That's a debatable statement that Mr. Heinecke provides no proof for. 
 
 
These unnecessarily severe travel advisories are now having a major impact on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country.

 

 

How is a advisory that is factually correct unnecessarily severe?  If Mr. Heinecke disputes the facts contained in the travel advisories then he should stick with those facts and ask that the embassies revise their advisories to be more factually correct. 
 
While it's unfortunate that many Thais have been impacted by the political unrest going on, tourism is not an entitlement.  Nobody should be duped into taking risks they are not willing to take just so the local people in Thailand don't suffer any financial hardship.  If someone is uncomfortable with the level of risk in Thailand right now, that is their prerogative and it would be much more comforting if people like Mr. Heinecke understood and addressed their reservations rather than trying to downplay the risks.  
 
Thailand’s caretaker Minister of Tourism and Sports Somsak Phurisisak reported that tourism arrivals in January dropped by one million from the same time last year. The Tourism Council of Thailand quantified the revenue loss as 22.5 billion baht. This impact will not only be felt in the tourism sector, but also indirectly in all fields from manufacturing to farming.

 

 

This is like saying that I should buy an inferior product because the people who make it will suffer financial hardship if I don't.  Mr. Heinecke seems to misunderstand the first rule of salesmanship, it's not about what you want, it's about what the customer wants.  
 
I think it's also worth pointing out that when tourism is doing well in Thailand, tourists aren't cut many breaks.  Weren't Thai authorities recently considering a 500 baht tourist tax?  
 

Thailand remains one of the most popular and desired destinations on the planet. I know that tourists still want to travel here – I can see it in the reservation inquiries that our hotels receive every day. But people are naturally hesitant when their home country issues travel restrictions or country warnings.
 
Travel advisories play an important role in our overall safety and security, but they can also have an unnecessarily negative impact on the livelihood of others when they are not completely based on reality. Foreign governments’ travel warnings and restrictions on their nationals to visit Thailand are not based on the full reality of the situation for visitors to the Kingdom.
 
If there were demonstrations in Washington or Paris, would tourists be advised not to visit the entire country? Would travel warnings ever be issued? I ask the members of the diplomatic community who are based in Thailand and staff from the Ministry for Tourism and Sports who have first-hand experience of the non-impact of Thailand’s political woes on foreign tourists, to support the cause to have foreign governments re-examine the severity of their travel restrictions and to revise their travel advisories to focus only on the very limited pockets of Bangkok that are affected.

 

 

The difference, Mr. Heincke, is that demonstrations like the ones happening in Bangkok are unlikely in Washington or Paris.  I'm pretty sure there's a protest in Washington at least every day.  Same with London, Frankfurt, or Paris.  
 
But, protestors rarely get into gun battles with police.  They rarely plant bombs.  They rarely throw grenades or explosives into crowds.  Protests are rarely moving mobs of people who pop up here and there and thus are unpredictable in terms of where the protest areas are.  
 
The bottom line is that demonstrations in Washington and Paris are fairly tame in comparison even if the passions are equal.  Police in most western countries are well trained and no demonstration would go on for the length of time the protests in Bangkok have been going on.  Protesters would not be allowed to dig in and create an entire support infrastructure (food, sanitation, etc) so they can protest indefinitely.  
 
Just like when the Yellow Shirts took over the airport years back.  I can't think of a single western country that wouldn't have brought that situation to a close and restored airport operations in a few hours.
 
And that's why Bangkok can't be compared to western countries.  The governmental institutions that ensure an orderly society are not on par with western countries.  When protesters, yellow or red, can take over major parts of a city for weeks or months on end and the police and the military sit back and do nothing, can they be relied on to protect innocent tourists who may find themselves in a dangerous situation?   
 
Those conditions mean that the government has lost control of those areas.  Should something happen to a tourist, the government can do nothing to help them.  The protestors control entire sections of the city.  
 
I've been in Thailand for both the yellow shirt protests (when they captured the airport) and the red shirt protests in 2010.  I lived in an area (Ratchaprasong) that was completely under red shirt control.  There were no police.  There were no emergency services.  I had to pass through checkpoints, armed by red shirt guards, to get back to my apartment every night.
 
This simply would not happen, nor be tolerated in Washington or Paris.  To make the comparison is to utterly misunderstand why the embassies have issued travel advisories.   
 

I have the utmost respect for the members of the diplomatic community who play a very important role in representing their nation’s interests across the globe.
 
Yet it is upsetting to see travel warnings such as the "black/severe threat for Thailand (Bangkok)" from the government of Hong Kong. Specifically, nationals are "urged to avoid all travel to Bangkok", which I feel is severe and should only refer to specific areas of the capital.

 

 

Specific areas that change frequently.  
 

In the same vein, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the nations who have not issued, or only issued limited travel warnings — your support is greatly appreciated.
 
I would also ask that you and the Ministry of Tourism and Sports join with me in lobbying with some of our friends in the media to honour a code of ethics and provide a fair and factual overview of the political challenges that we face.
 
Dramatising and focusing on sensationalist headlines and scenes is not a balanced view of the protests that we face in Bangkok.
 
Such reporting serves only to further fuel the fire of unnecessary scare tactics and fear-mongering. Bangkok is open for business and visitors are warmly welcomed across the capital.
 

 

Thailand is one of the most welcoming countries in the world and I hope that together we can continue to support this beautiful destination and its people.

 

 

 

http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/396181/an-open-letter-to-ambassadors-based-in-bangkok. 

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I assume that Mr. Heinecke must be referring to behavior like this when he talks about why the Thai tourism industry is so deserving of tourist dollars.

 

Phuket boatmen block access to famed beach

 

PHUKET: Long-tailed boat operators have blocked the path down to Freedom Beach, meaning visitors can no longer access the beach on foot, and instead are forced to take a longtail. 

 

The operators are quite clear: they don’t want people walking down to the largest beach on Phuket that is untouched by development. They want them to pay for the boat ride from Patong Beach, and they don’t care about the legalities. Their livelihood, they say, is at stake.
 
An expatriate who preferred not to be named walked down to the beach with two other foreigners and two Thais on Sunday (February 16). As he reported to The Phuket News, they had no problem walking down the hill above the beach, ownership of which is claimed by a Phuket individual.
 
But when they got down to the bottom, they were faced with a new barbed wire fence. Standing on the other side of the fence were three Thai boat operators.
 
“They were standing there shouting ‘Go back! You can’t go onto the beach!’ All three had an aggressive posture and they didn’t want us there. They kept saying that we must go to Patong and take a boat from there.
 
“We were one metre from the sand,” he told The Phuket News.
 
“My friend is Thai and tried to bargain with them but nothing worked as we were clearly not wanted on ‘their beach’.”
 
The party thought the final few metres were public land but after 5-10 minutes of pointless arguing they gave up and headed back up the hill.
 
“At the top of the hill was the ‘land owner’s’ caretaker. He had no problem with us walking down through the land to get to the beach. He was a very nice, understanding Thai who knew about the longtail people and referred to them them as ‘boat mafia’.
 
“We felt sorry for him as it seemed he was under pressure from the longtail operators to keep people from using the foot path to gain access to Freedom Beach.
 
“It was clear that the boat people only want paying customers to go there on their transport [boats from Patong] and by no other means,” he added.
 
The Phuket News visited the beach on Friday (February 21). There are two paths down to the beach. One is closed with an ominous sign stating, “Tourist Warning! Be careful of the people who doesn’t own this land to collect the entry fee to Freedom Beach. This land is private property. Not allow to pass this land to the Freedom Beach. The invasion is criminal, any violation will be prosecuted according to the law.”
 
The other way to go down the beach, however, is still open, apart from the longtail guards at the very bottom.
 
On Friday morning, the longtail operators said, someone had come at 8:30 am and removed the barbed wire. No one seemed to know who these people were acting for, but the longtail operators were visibly offended.
 
The Phuket News called the person who claims to own the land but she refused to comment.
 
One of the boatmen said, “The land to the Freedom Beach in the past used to be overgrown, steep land that no one could walk through. As time passed, however, people built paths down the hill and started charging entry fees for people who wanted to go down that way.
 
In fact, the group who contacted The Phuket News about the path being wired off and guarded said that they were never asked for money before they walked down the path to the shore.
 
But whether there is a charge or not, the boatmen argue, “We lose revenue. We used to be the only way for people to get to the beach.”
 
The boat men, members of the Patong Longtail Boat Association, told The Phuket News that their ancestors had fished the waters off the island’s west coast for at least 100 years.
 
But as tourism developed and Patong boomed, wastewater draining from the swelling town polluted the waters and reduced fish catches to unsustainable levels.
 
So the boatmen had to switch to providing water taxi services for tourists. Now they fear that the only beach not accessible from the land – and therefore their main source of income – is going to be opened up to everybody because of “rich people” who have managed to grab the land opening paths and allowing tourists to walk down the beach.
 
The longtail boat operators believe that the land cannot and should not be owned by private individuals. One said, “We would like to see the beach and the hillside stay natural forever.”
 
They have a point; in May 2012 the Parliamentary Committee for Anti-Corruption and Misconduct ruled that a chanote deed for 65 rai of land bordering Freedom Beach had been issued “through illegal process” and petitioned the Land Department to rescind the deed, with the land reverting to public ownership.
 
Yet it appears that has not happened and the land still has an “owner”.
 
Big money is at stake. Two years ago the 65 rai was offered for sale at B60 million a rai, or about B4 billion for the lot.
 
This makes the boatmen resentful – and worried. They remain convinced that even if the land owners are rich enough not to bother about charging entry fees, the gatekeepers may see an opportunity for enhancing their own income.
 
“My ancestors were working here for a long, long time,” said one. “Now, investors come and take advantage from the entry fee business. So how will we eat now? You have to understand our point of view.”
 
The boat operators admitted that they know it’s wrong to block the path with barbed wire but pointed out that they carry passengers to the beach only from December to March – the high season.
 
From April to November the heavy seas of the southwest monsoon are too rough for them to set out to sea. In those months, they say, the “investors” can make money from fees charged for using the paths through their land.
 
Ironically, although the action of the boatmen is illegal, it may also be the only thing keeping the issue in the public eye and slowing an insidious land grab that could result in the one remaining large pristine beach on the island being blighted by development.
 

 

 

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I think to anyone that is on the ground, it's not that dangerous. But as you say, safety should be measured in levels since it's not black and white. 

 

William Heinecke has every reason to fight what governments are saying. The main reason is that it's hurting his business! I can't really blame him or the governments for their differing viewpoints as each side has it's own job to do. That being said, who's right? In my opinion, both sides are exaggerating too much. A government can't sit back and tell people to make up their own minds, and people like Heinecke have to be proactive in trying to get business back up sooner rather than later. 

 

Do I think it's relatively safe? Yes. Would I bring my kids to the protest sites? Hell no. I had a meeting at Asoke last week. I went through the checkpoints, kept my head down, and got to where I needed to be, but I didn't like one second of it. Barely a few hundred "protestors" were there, yet they were blocking the entire Asoke intersection. It reminded me of when you get ants in your kitchen. You hope they go away on their own, but they aren't that bad. After a while, however, something needs to be done.

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