Famed Thai hospitality shows signs of strain
BANGKOK: Long one of the most open and accommodating destinations for tourists and businesspeople in Asia, the well-advertised "land of smiles" is showing signs of a subtle frown directed toward foreigners.
Over the past seven months, successive Thai governments have passed measures scrutinizing land purchases by non-Thais and clamping down on long-stay retirees and expatriate workers who lack proper visas. In January, the cabinet passed a sweeping bill that tightens restrictions on foreign companies, a measure that awaits final approval.
"There's been a trend that suggests rising economic nationalism," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. Thailand, he said, has fallen into a "very complex mood of ambivalence" toward outsiders under the military-led government that seized power last September.
That mood is evident in a 12th-floor conference room at the headquarters of Bangkok Bank, where Vongthip Chumpani, an adviser and former vice president at the bank, expresses her frustrations about certain types of foreigners who come to Thailand — and tend to stay.
"We are getting a lot of weird retirees here," Vongthip said. "They can't survive in your country so they come here."
Thailand needs to slow down and catch its breath, she said. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in September, had entered into a flurry of free-trade agreements with Australia, China, Japan, the United States and others. To Vongthip's thinking, he tried to pry the country open too quickly.
"We bent over backward all the time to accommodate foreign investors," she said.
That could be changing.
Under proposed new rules for foreign investors, companies such as Federal Express might have to give up control of their operations in Thailand. Car and electronics manufacturers could be barred from delivering their cars or disk drives to ports for export; only Thai-owned companies would be allowed to transport items within the country.
Retail chains — big ones like Carrefour and hundreds of smaller ones — could be frozen out of future expansion. Land purchases by thousands of foreigners could be declared illegal.
These amendments to the Foreign Business Act were approved by the Thai cabinet in January and are now under review by the Council of State, an independent government body of legal experts.
Since the very first boatloads of Portuguese and Dutch emissaries arrived here five centuries ago, Thailand has had a knack for dealing with foreigners: trade but not domination, hospitality but not subservience. Thais successfully gleaned technology from Europeans, Americans and Japanese, and the elite sent their children to study abroad. Unlike all of its neighbors, Thailand was never colonized.
But this was before millions of tourists poured into the country's spas, beaches, golf courses and restaurants — not to mention red-light districts and massage parlors. The number of tourists visiting Thailand, whose population is 64 million, is expected to reach nearly 15 million this year, a doubling over the past decade.
On the southern resort island of Phuket, roadside billboards, written in English, advertise million-dollar condominiums — this in a country where a schoolteacher is lucky to bring home a few hundred dollars a month. In northeastern Thailand, men from Germany, Switzerland, Britain and other Western countries live with their Thai wives on neatly groomed streets that stand out from ramshackle neighboring villages.
"I've seen so many old farangs with young Thai women," said Nattaya Rattanamanee, 31, an accountant working at a hotel on the resort island of Samui, using the Thai word for Westerners. "These old farangs damage the reputation of Thailand; they turn Thailand into a land of prostitutes."
Feeling the strain of the tourist influx, the Thai government recently announced a new approach: the country would no longer focus on the quantity of tourists, but instead target "quality" — read "wealthy" — tourists.
"In years past we've always targeted numbers: trying to achieve the highest numbers of arrivals possible," said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, a spokesman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "It's time to change. If we continue to focus mainly on numbers, some destinations will not be able to handle that many people."
Any resentment that Thais may harbor toward foreigners is unlikely to be felt by short-term vacationers. It is hidden behind an often genuine Thai smile and shielded by a wall of politeness. There is no generalized backlash against foreigners, Thais say, but rather concerns about specific problems: criminals who come to Thailand on the lam, the increase in land purchases by foreigners and foreign companies having too much influence in the economy.
In September, just before the coup, the head of the country's immigration department announced that foreign tourists would be limited to staying in Thailand for 90 days within any six- month period. This was primarily aimed at foreign retirees who take up permanent residence without proper paperwork and the thousands of people working here without work visas.
One such person was John Mark Karr, the American who falsely confessed to the 1996 killing of JonBenet Ramsey, a Colorado schoolgirl, and was living in Bangkok as an English teacher. Karr's apprehension last August in Bangkok buttressed Thailand's image as a magnet for creeps and perverts.
"I hate them. There are so many of those in Thailand," said Yupa Boontaworn, a 22-year-old university student, when asked about people like Karr. Tourism is good for the Thai economy, she said, but the government should move more aggressively against pedophiles and sex tourists.
As a tourist destination, Thailand shares much in common with the Netherlands: a hands-off government and the veneer of a tolerant society, but a surprisingly conservative core. In some ways, anti-foreign feelings in Thailand arise from the clash between the permissive Thailand of skimpily clad bar girls twirling around poles and the more traditional side of the country, where women are too shy even to wear a swimsuit on a beach. Today, that veneer of tolerance, while still intact, is chipping.
"Foreigners shouldn't be able to do anything they please in Thailand," said Samree Ardsuan, 68, a retired civil servant. If someone led a demonstration protesting foreign ownership of companies, Samree said, he would definitely join in.
With a few exceptions such as condominiums and small plots, foreigners are barred from owning property in Thailand. But many have skirted these laws by registering shell companies, a practice that the government now promises to stop.
The mood toward foreigners today, analysts say, is a corollary to Thailand's political crisis. Many Thais became defensive when foreign governments criticized the coup in September as undemocratic, and today there are occasional nationalist outbursts. In February, the head of the military junta, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, vowed to retake stakes in a satellite company that Thaksin's family sold to a Singapore government agency last year.
The Thai government says the proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act are long overdue clarifications. But to some Thais, including Vongthip of Bangkok Bank, the law would also help redress what is seen here as the injustices that accompanied the financial crisis of the late 1990s, when indebted Thai companies were forced to sell their assets cheaply to foreigners. Foreign banks and companies, Vongthip said, "picked up everything for a song."
Many questions about the amendments remain. Analysts say there could be less pressure for a new law since one of the more nationalist members of the Thai cabinet, Pridiyathorn Devakula, stepped down as finance minister in February.
The legal committee also appears to be casting a skeptical eye on the proposed new law. "The majority of the committee is not sure that the law needs to be amended," Pakorn Nilprapan, the committee's secretary, said this month. "We are seeking explanations from the Ministry of Commerce."
Even if the amendments do become law, many here predict that the law's harshest provisions will be quietly forgotten.
"I don't think it's going to be enforced — it's just not the Thai way," said David Lyman, chairman of Tilleke & Gibbons, a prominent Bangkok law firm.
Lyman, who first moved to Thailand in 1949, says he has seen this all before: the government has threatened to restrict foreign ownership on and off for nearly four decades.
"Reason usually ends up prevailing in Thailand — after all other options have been exhausted," Lyman said.
Pornnapa Wongakanit contributed reporting from Bangkok.