Extreme tourism

A holiday package comes with cash as well as free plastic surgery

By Rahul Goswami (COCHINCHINA)

Published: Sat 29 Mar 2014, 9:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:39 PM

The eccentric confluences of globalisation, microsecond marketing, destruction of distances by low-cost airlines and mass tourism have caused not a few Southeast Asian countries to behave most peculiarly. All of them — there is not a single exception which can be called stable on all counts — hanker for tourists and are apparently willing to sacrifice social common sense as long as the flights continue landing. When that addiction grows, and then begins to get choked by one form of internal instability or another, madness sets in.

Such a madness — one cannot call it anything else — has infected the Tourism Authority of Thailand which is reported to be offering a few potential tourists a package that includes $5,000 in cash, a ‘luxury’ vacation and, of all things, free plastic surgery. It is this last that signals the madness for although Thailand has become a centre of sorts for people who are willing to tamper with the anatomical proportions they have been gifted by nature, combining plastic surgery with tourism must call for an elevated barminess.

The impetus to such invention appears to have been provided by the indefatigable anti-government protests that have occupied Bangkok for a large part of last year. Economists and bankers and insurers and vendors of luxury goods each have different levels of gloominess to which they choose to sink when describing the effects of the protests on the Thai economy. Whatever their plimsoll line below which lies wrack and ruin, there appears to be some consensus that in Thailand, at least 10 per cent of the GDP comes via tourism, and nearly an equal amount from medical tourism. If you wonder why the medical tourists shouldn’t be more visible, it is because per head they are spending very much more than the hordes staggering off to Pattaya in search of still more cheap thrills.

Undoubtedly, some consortium of persons has been marketed as clever to the Thai authorities and can profess membership of that group, the global consulting firms. From the unconventional mashing together of two tottering industries, the consultants have likely gambled that they can fire a single silver bullet at three Thai problems and so begin, as Ulysses pronounced to Achilles, “an operation more divine than breath or pen can give expressure to”.

But fates that seem strange elsewhere are common fare in the oddness of Thailand today, for the careless (or carefree even, for there is little distinction to be made between the two nowadays) traveller may find that Bangkok is as central as it ever will be, but other urban stars are claiming their shares of the global throngs who are ever in search of leisure, entertainment and colour to replace, however fleetingly, the drudgery of modern labour. These three are Hat Yai, Trang and Krabi — all in southern Thailand — and seem to have municipal corporations engaged in furious (and unwise, in the long run,) competition to prettify themselves for the uncaring hordes mentioned above.

Economic policy for a small region — as any 16th-century petty vendor of stale fruit could have advised the three municipalities — should be cautious and turn its back on risk. “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other,” Macbeth had muttered to himself one dark day but we find the municipalities of Thailand had placed themselves out of earshot when he did so. And that is why apart from the mystifyingly obtuse and lengthy drama occupying Bangkok there are large brokerages being readied in these three cities.

For the economists and bankers and insurers and investors in the retail trade (also known as the younger brothers of the vendors of luxury goods, political cronies of ministers, sundry layabouts and lesser lights) the attractiveness of this unhinged approach is that it turns public goods into private, and turns commons into rentable zones. That they will now run these three southern Thai urban centres rather like industrial townships — mayors or their equivalent will be akin to CEOs gripped tightly by shareholders — is certain. The new consortia will combine medical tourism, mass tourism and dreadfully cheap retail and food into one ugly and dollarised porridge, appealing crudely to the baser instincts of the Southeast Asian and East Asian consuming class, hastening Thailand’s transformation into the land of the plasticky smile.

The author is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with Unesco

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