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PHUKET OPINION: Stop ‘zero fare tours’ before they start in Phuket

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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PHUKET OPINION: Stop ‘zero fare tours’ before they start in Phuket | The Thaiger

PHUKET: Plans by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and three tourism business associations to stop ‘zero tour fare’ operators from setting up in Phuket are laudable, especially given the damage such outfits have already done to the inbound Chinese market in places like Chiang Mai and Pattaya. (See story here.)

Often run out of Bangkok, zero fare tour operators pay foreign travel agencies on a ‘per head’ basis – typically US$50 or US$100 – for each tourist they bring in.

The operators provide the tourists with free accommodation, but to recoup their expenses they take their ‘guests’ on ‘special’ sightseeing tours and shopping sprees, using coercion and reportedly even threats to get the tourists to spend money.

The tour operators make back their costs and exact their profits from (undisclosed) commissions, thus ensuring there is almost no let-up in the high-pressure tactics the captive tourists are forced to endure.

The net result is a holiday hell for the victims, who are held virtually hostage in a foreign land, not knowing where to turn for help and in some cases being abandoned.

Zero tour fare operators have been a major source of complaints to the Chinese government, which last year moved to stop the practice by making it illegal for travel agencies in that country to fly out tourists who have not seen their itinerary details in advance.

Unfortunately, some operators continue the practice – at the expense of Thailand’s reputation in what should be its fastest growing market. As a result, overall tourist arrival figures from China have been falling in recent years, despite China’s strong economy and a number of other positive factors that should be making China the next great tourism frontier for Thailand.

Fortunately, Phuket has largely been spared of zero fare tour operators, in large part because hotels here are generally too expensive for the operators to deal with. In fact, Phuket province has uniquely been enjoying steady growth in tourist arrivals from China, thanks to an increase in the number of direct  flights to the island from Chinese cities.

In another positive development, relatively more Chinese visitors are coming here as independent tourists, freeing themselves of package tours altogether. More Chinese than ever came for last October’s Phuket Vegetarian Festival, eager to catch a glimpse of authentic Chinese cultural traditions that were passed on from generation to generation, unaffected by the Cultural Revolution that destroyed so much of China’s own cultural heritage.

With China currently suffering a gender imbalance of 120 males for every 100 females, the TAT might also wish to consider the future impact of this ratio on tourism here….

— Stephen Fein

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Election

The day that shook Thai politics

Tim Newton

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The day that shook Thai politics | The Thaiger

OPINION

It was just another Friday except that it was also the final day that political parties were able to nominate MPs for the March 24 elections. And their proposed candidates for the role of the a Prime Minister following the election.

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha would announce his candidacy sometime during the morning, the worst kept secret in Thai politics.

After engineering a new constitution in 2017, with an outward veneer of democracy, the General and the military minders were a shoe-in to regain control following the election. Except this time they would appear to have a mandate through an electoral process.

The country’s upper house of parliament, the National Assembly, would be nominated, entirely, by the Military. But there was plenty of residual negative feeling brewing, both from the factions loyal to former PM Thaksin, still lurking in exile, and a reaction to four years of military rule.

There were plenty of new political parties putting forward MPs vying for a seat in the lower house of the Thai parliament. They realised that they would have an uphill battle. But the sheer numbers of MP candidates, the largest ever in Thai history, was an impressive show of the country’s desire to return to a semblance of democracy, even if the military would continue to pull the strings.

The new charter throws a new electoral system into play. Untested and untried. It’s a modified proportional method of choosing the 500 members of the lower house of parliament in which people vote for one of 350 constituency candidates; those votes are totalled to determine which of the remaining 150 party list seats go to which party.

Under the previous system voters cast two ballots, one for the candidate and one for the party.

The barely disguised aim was to increase the seats held by medium-sized parties, but significantly reduce the seats held by the party of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, which won every election held since 2001.

The Thaksin parties needed to pull a political rabbit out of the hat to maintain their margin – pluck a winning card out of the stacked deck.

First thing last Friday, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, actually dropped their political, and social bombshell. Although rumored in the days before the nomination deadline, they announced that Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Princess Ubolratana was a famous actress, singer and businesswoman. She had officially relinquished her royal titles in 1972, when she married an American and moved to the United States. At the time she was the eldest child of Rama 9, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a female, so unable to assume the throne under the Thai royal succession guidelines.

But now she was the sister of the current Monarch. And, aghast, she was throwing her hat in the ring with the country’s pro-Thaksin forces.

What did all this mean? Was there some back-room collusion between the Thai monarch and the exiled fugitive former PM Thaksin? Was this some unforeseen coup d’état attempt against the country’s military? Had a deal being brokered between the Shinawatras and the Thai palace following decades of rivalry which had caused so much political turmoil?

Was THIS the move that would break the long-standing stalemate between the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt factions?

The news of her candidacy sent academics scurrying for their history books. The media were in a frenzy. The current PM’s nomination as prime ministerial candidate almost went unnoticed.

The news would throw Prayuth’s ‘cunning plan’ to put a democratic varnish on his leadership into turmoil.

This was a first. The first time in Thai history that a member of the royal family ran for elected office. Was it legal? Could she do it? Had she spoken to HM The King before agreeing to the invitation from the Thai Raksa Chart party?

If it had gone ahead, Ubolratana’s candidacy would probably have been a walk in the park, all the way to the keys of the PM office in Government House.

Who would run against her, or make statements against a candidate who cannot be legally criticised? Although she had relinquished her Royal title ‘HRH’, she was still very much a part of the ‘Family’.

For Thais, they would be divided between making a political vote or displaying their loyalty to the country’s monarchy – an institution with potent emotional power in the South East Asian nation.

But a mere 13 hours after Princess Ubolratana had been announced as a prime ministerial candidate, her brother HM King Vajiralongkorn issued a strongly worded statement which took the winning card out of the deck.

“Despite the fact that Princess Ubolratana relinquished her titles, in compliance with the Palace Laws, she has been maintaining her status as a member of the Chakri royal family.”

“Any attempt to involve high-ranking members of the royal family in the political process, by whatever means, would be a breach of time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture.”

“Such actions must be deemed a transgression and a highly inappropriate act.”

The Princess’ 13 hour political career was over.

The statement from His Majesty, and the Princess’ Instagram response the following day, were both ambiguous enough to allow the Election Commission to make a final decision about her candidacy, although to allow her continuation in the political race, in defiance with The King, would have thrown the country into a constitutional crisis in the weeks leading up to the general election.

But the drama wasn’t entirely over with rumors of a coup underway from another military faction just four days after the events of the tumultuous Friday. The NCPO’s public relations machine, along with the Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, were rolled out to firmly deny the rumors and promised to track down the source of the fake news and punish anyone who shared the news on social media.

Everything was back to normal, although ‘normal’ is never a word that can be used to describe the political situation in Thailand or the complex social links between the Family, the Privy Council, business people and the Army.

The election campaign is forging ahead as planned but March 24 is still a long way off and, really, anything could happen. The NCPO’s 2014 aim to ‘bring the happiness back to Thailand’ will be sorely tested in the next few weeks.

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Election

Can the Princess be PM?

Kritsada Mueanhawong

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Can the Princess be PM? | The Thaiger

Analysis

The Princess was nominated. Her brother, HM Thai King, objected. Thai Raksa Chart postponed their campaign launch on Saturday morning. The PM and Election Commission have stayed silent.

With the weekend allowing cooler heads to sift through yesterday’s events, next week it is hoped some clarity will emerge about the Princess’ nomination as a prime ministerial candidate that threw the election campaign a curved ball yesterday morning.

Princess Ubolratana’s position within the Thai Royal Family doesn’t preclude her from running for a political position, although to defy The King’s wishes, after his strongly worded statement on Friday night, would place the country in an unprecedented constitutional conundrum.

That she was nominated by a political party with strong ties to the former disgraced and fugitive PM, Thaksin Shinawatra, also places an additionally complex spin on the Princess’ decision to accept the nomination.

For her to run as a candidate for the role of PM would put all other candidates in a very difficult position, including the current PM, Prayut Chan-o-cha, who also was nominated as a PM candidate yesterday.

With her clear connections to the royal family it would make questioning her, or even running against her, untenable or even impossible within the dynamic of Thai society. Would any candidate dare to run against the King’s sister?

The Election Commission, by law, has the final say on the acceptance of candidates. But, to be sure, the batteries on the smartphones of politicians and palace officials will be running low this weekend.

At this stage, the man who has the most to lose, the current PM, has made no comment about the nomination.

Can the Princess be PM? | News by The Thaiger

Princess Ubolratana is the eldest child of Rama 9, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016, and Queen Sirikit. According to some analysts, royal family members of her ‘rank’ are not barred from politics but have opted to stay neutral in the past, a long-standing protocol in most modern constitutional monarchies.

Ubolratana was close to her father – the two won a gold medal in sailing at the 1967 Southeast Asian Games. She relinquished her royal title when she married her American husband Peter Ladd Jensen in 1972 and settled in the US, where she studied biochemistry.

The couple had three children but their second, Khun Bhumi Jensen – known as Khun Poom – died in the 2004 tsunami that ravaged southern Thailand.

Following her divorce in 1998, she returned to Thailand permanently in 2001 and became active in royal life. She has been working as a representative for the Thai tourism authority for more than 10 years. He also set up several charities, including the Khun Poom Foundation, named after her son, that assists children with autism and other learning disabilities, and headed a campaign that helps young people stay off drugs.

She is regularly featured in the daily TV coverage of the royal family going about their duties in the Kingdom and is generally treated with the same respect as the other leading members of the family.

She is also well known and loved in Thailand as a keen singer and actor, appearing in several films, and is active on social media, where posts of her singing and dancing have gone viral on her Instagram page.

On March 24, Thais will vote for the 500 seat lower house of parliament. The 250 member upper house, the National Legislative Council, will be chosen entirely by the military.

Can the Princess be PM? | News by The Thaiger

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Bangkok

Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes – FAIL

Tim Newton

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Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes  – FAIL | The Thaiger

OPINION

Smog, air pollution, air quality, PM2.5 micron particulate. If you live in Bangkok it’s all the same thing.

Four water-carrying drones took off from Bangkok City Hall this morning to join three fire engines in the latest assault on health-threatening haze.

Bangkok is a city covering some 1,500 square kilometres with a population of over 8 million. The frequent media ‘photo opportunities’ of water cannons, fire trucks spurting perfectly good drinking water into the sky and domestic drones spraying their 10 litre loads into the air, are lapped up by the local media but are doing nothing to address the key air pollution issues.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing.

The Bangkok Governor indignantly replied to a journalist who dared to ask him if the drones would help reduce the city’s air pollution with the response “at least we’re trying something”.

Whilst this media show continues, Bangkokians, adorned in cheap facemarks that are more a fashion accessory than a reliable health prevention measure, continue to suffer the month-long haze and smog that has settled over the capital.

The readings of ‘Unhealthy’ provide a daily scorecard of the Bangkok authorities’ efforts.

Last week, bereft of any workable solutions, a spokesperson for the Pollution Control Department even went as far as debunking the science behind the measurement of the PM2.5 micron particles and said the websites publishing the air quality readings were ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is still pinning its hopes on water sprayed into the air as a means of lowering levels of harmful PM2.5 dust particles. Nearly a month of all this water being sprayed into the air has resulted in a net zero result.

Whilst being a very visible and photo-worthy effort, the water sprayed into the air sells umbrellas and that’s about all.

The Nation reports that Pol Lt Colonel Somkiat Nonthakaew, director of the BMA Fire and Rescue Department, reported a small change in plans from yesterday’s deployment. The three fire engines, each with a 10,000 litre water tanks, were spraying water to lower heights, while the drones would be spraying the air from 30-50 metres’ altitude.

Water was also being sprayed from the 37th floors of tall buildings (why the 37th floor?). The operation would continue for “as long as it takes”, Somkiat said to The Nation.

The drones can cover one rai per flight, according to the BMA Fire and Rescue spokesperson. There are 50 drones. There are 625 Rai in a square kilometre. Bangkok is over 1,500 square kilometres… you do the maths.

Bangkok air pollution reduction schemes  - FAIL | News by The Thaiger

Whilst this show is being played out in Bangkok, the burning of agricultural fields – rice and sugar cane plantations mainly – continues in the central, north-eastern and northern plains of Thailand. And the old diesel buses, along with other old cars, keep plodding around the city and environs every day pumping out plumes of black smoke.

But NONE of these issues, the core problem of Bangkok’s air pollution issues, are being actively addressed, or even admitted by the authorities.

Nature, a change in the weather and the progression of the seasons is the only thing that will clear this mess in the short term. It won’t be the 50 drones dropping their gooey loads onto the streets below.

Meanwhile, the burn-offs continue in the agricultural sectors of Thailand, the largest sector of voters in the country.

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