With less than three years until the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is official, Thailand is still in the planning/forming committees/bitching and moaning/pointing fingers/panic mode.

The ten countries that comprise ASEAN – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam – formally adopted the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2007 for implementation in 2015.

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

This ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that starts in 2015 has actually been planned since 1997 – yes – 1997. Then, the vision was for…

The ASEAN Leaders at their Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997 decided to transform ASEAN into a stable, prosperous, and highly competitive region with equitable economic development, and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities (ASEAN Vision 2020). ASEAN ECONOMIC COMMUNITY BLUEPRINT

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has been modified over the years and accelerated (from 2020 to 2015) and mostly ignored by the Thai Government and the Thai private sectors. Even though there is a lot of data online, including the AEC Handbook, most Thai Government Officials seem content to go to the occasional ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) conference, sit around and nod their heads, and then pose for the obligatory interlocked arms photo. With time running out, the Thailand tourism private sector has finally figured out that the Thai Government hasn’t done much and isn’t going to do much when it comes to the ASEAN Economic Community. Panic is definitely setting in. The Nation has an article, Hotel industry needs more local professionals, that really should be titled “Thai Government Needs To Get Off Its Ass And Get Serious About AEC”:

The Asean Economic Community has become a popular subject of discussion in Thailand nowadays, especially among businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry. Surely, having access to a market of 600 million people in 2015 is good news, but many people are forgetting one important factor: manpower.

Right – the manpower that will come from the other nine member countries and take tourism jobs away from Thais.

Thailand has played a significant role in the regional tourism industry past but it might end up facing some fierce competition once the AEC opens up fully. So the question is, how will Thailand maintain its momentum? Once the AEC kicks in, new players from nine nations that have similar tourism products will emerge as serious competitors to the Kingdom as a cheap travel destination.

Thailand’s momentum is fictitious perpetuated by inflated foreign tourist arrival numbers by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Along with similar projects, one country in particular – Vietnam – will be opening a meg-resort/casino – the MGM Grand Ho Tram Resort – next year. This will be the first of about 5 casinos/resorts opened on the Ho Tram Strip. Wonder how many Chinese tourists will opt for Vietnam instead of Thailand.

Under the AEC, opportunities will open up as per the Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA). In the hotel and tourism industry, 32 positions are already on offer as part of a deal signed by Asean members. Under the MRA, professionals are allowed to work in any member country if they are accredited according to the terms of the agreement.

TTR Weekly reported back in August 2011 that Thailand had not signed the Mutual Recognition Agreement on tourism. I don’t know if this ever got signed, but needs to, if not.

“Only three years are left and it isn’t easy to prepare people to serve the industry. Readiness does not come from pointing the finger, but from serious consideration and implementation,” said Nalikatibhag Sangsnit, director-general of Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA).

The serious consideration and implementation should have started about 5 years ago, but Thailand failed to do so.

Thailand has been working hard to follow this guideline, with the Tourism and Sports Ministry playing a key role in defining a master plan to meet standards. The Education Ministry is also expected to join in and design a new curriculum to produce professionals.

Defining a master plan to meet ASEAN tourism standards for hospitality and education is one thing – actually doing something is another. It is 2012 – almost 1/2 gone – and now the Education Ministry is going to develop a new curriculum. Knowing how things work in Thailand, this means that it will be implemented about five years from now and will be totally sub-standard.

However, Vachara Kannikar, Tourism and Sports Ministry spokesman, believes that a professional workforce can be created in time for the AEC, provided Thailand takes a more aggressive stance in modernising legislation to cope with the rapidly changing business environment.

“Modernizing legislation to cope with the rapidly changing business environment” – Thai Government speak meaning nothing.

“Imagine housekeepers coming over from the Philippines. They are more fluent in English than Thais,” an industry source said, adding that local operators could not stop foreign workers getting jobs in Thailand if they had MRA accreditation.

Kiss jobs for Thais good-bye. Imagine hotel managers from Singapore that can speak English and Chinese.

Thanavath Phonvichai, director of the Centre for Economic and Business Forecasting of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said it was not too late if the country started preparing now. In fact, he said, Thailand’s tourism industry was strong enough, and one of its advantages was that Thais are service-minded and friendly.

Another one singing the party line. Most of the other ASEAN countries have been working on this for five years or more and are totally prepared for the ASEAN Economic Community. Where is Thailand – let’s start preparing now. Who will win?

However, Vachara said one of the biggest worries was the lack of fluency in the English language. He warned that people in neighbouring countries spoke at least two languages and many were absolutely fluent in English.

Thailand’s literacy rate in the Thai language is a dismal 41% – yes most Thais cannot speak their own language fluently. How will they ever learn English in a school system designed for students not to learn.

Pornchanit Kaewnate, dean of the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, agreed that being fluent in English would be very important once the AEC kicks in, though people should also pay attention to regional tongues and culture.

Being fluent in English and/or Chinese is important NOW – not just three years from now.

This university has already started changing its curriculum to meet the changing business environment by offering an extra language such as Burmese or Lao in addition to English. They are also offering lessons on innovative tourism, especially in creating new travel options.

“Started changing curriculum” – something that should have been done 5 years ago. “Innovative tourism, especially in creating new travel options” means nothing when there is no innovation or new travel options to promote. With the mega casino in Vietnam and Burma’s doors about to open, who will want to come to Thailand?

This year, the university also launched a new course in partnership with the School of Tourism and Hospitality of Auckland University of Technology. This three-and-half-year programme allows students to study in Thailand for two and half years and spend a year in Auckland, New Zealand.

So, it will be ready one-two years after the ASEAN Economic Community has already begun. How many students will continue to stay in New Zealand and work there for higher wages? Another case of too little, too late and this program will only help the wealthy in Bangkok as they will be the only ones that can afford it.

This means that the hotel industry could get fresh graduates in the next four years, yet there is only three years before AEC kicks in. Perhaps the Thai tourism and hospitality industry needs to find a new solution to this challenge.

Duh! Brilliant observation of the obvious. Another problem is the newly enacted law to pay university graduates a starting salary of 15,000 baht. The hotel industry has already come out and said that they cannot afford to pay this and will hire people that are not uni graduates. As you can see, Thailand is about to get slam dunked when it come to the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

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