Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tourist or Traveler?

Himalayan kingdom Bhutan opened its door to tourism a few years ago. Fearing that this little country would be overrun by backpackers like what happened to Nepal, the government of Bhutan decided to woo big spenders on group tour. In other words, they emphasized the quality, rather than quantity, of the visitors.

Closer to home, the government of Malaysia seems to be pursuing similar goal. In Kuala Lumpur, the capital, there are more Arabs than backpackers. Another group of tourists targeted by the government are the Chinese Mainlanders, even though bad publicity has had adverse effects on their arrivals.

But are budget travelers not worth attention by the Bhutanese and Malaysian governments? Carl Parkes, author of Thailand Handbook by Moon Publications, wrote an interesting topic, “Tourist or Traveler?” in his book. His comparison of relative merit of budget travelers and big spending tourists can surprise many of you. I now reproduce this topic here…

Tourist or Travelers?

Tourist offices, resort owners, and visitors alike often debate the relative merit of conventional tourists, who tend to patronize high-cost accommodations and activities, versus independent travelers, who are usually on a more moderate budget. Who spends the most money? Who puts more money into local economies? Which group causes the least cultural and environmental damage? Some very interesting answers were provided in the 1994 Quarterly Review from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

The survey showed Thailand attracts visitors chiefly for its warmth, friendliness, moderate cost of accommodations, and interesting nightlife. Thailand ranked fourth in cuisine after France, Italy, and Hong Kong (tough competition); second after Australia in overall appeal; but was rated the second worst polluted country after India Press reports about the deteriorated conditions of Pattaya Beach apparently made an impact.

But the most revealing section of the survey discussed the concept of “tourist” versus “traveler.” Tourism in Thailand is often criticized as aiming for quantity rather than quality. The TAT, in fact, desires to attract only quality visitors to the kingdom – an equation often calculated by multiplying the number of days by average daily expenditures.

Everyone wants quality, but no one can agree on what constitutes the ideal visitor. As you might expect, representatives from the Thai Hotel Association assert that quality tourists are the big spenders – those who stay in international chain hotels, ride in chauffeur-driven limousines, and dine at expensive restaurants.

Others argue that true quality tourists are those who most affect income distribution. Under this socioeconomic definition, the ideal visitor stays in locally owned hotels or guesthouses, eats at local foodstalls, and rides around town in a tuk tuk.

Academic studies conducted by TRDI and several travel specialists conclude that money from big spenders tends to leak outside the country through franchise royalties and remitted dividends to end up on the New York Stock Exchange. TRDI states income generated from budget-to-moderate travelers penetrates into the most needy segments of the Thai population: the guesthouse owners, café managers, and young kids who sell durians in the marketplace.

But who spends the most? The Quarterly Report of TRDI states that although daily expenditures of typical guesthouse visitors are below those of hotel patrons, they ultimately spend more due to their longer stays in the country. Plus, they do more to help the average Thai by patronizing local guesthouses and cafes.

Finally, the report concludes that independent travelers generally cause less cultural and environmental damage than the tourist who stays in international hotels and meets only bellhops and bartenders. Guesthouses, local cafes, and public transportation cause far less environmental damage than the big, international hotels which chew up natural resources and require enormous amounts of energy for air-conditioned rooms, heated swimming pools, and the like. Finally, on a social level, TRDI felt genuine contact with ordinary people is more worthwhile and rewarding than brief superficial encounters with hotel employees and restaurant wine stewards.

[Note: TAT = Tourism Authority of Thailand]

I will add one more point to the arguments given above. Independent travelers are often the best promoters of the countries they visited. Both Carl Parkes and Joe Cummings of Lonely Planet started out as independent travelers. I went to Northern Thailand in Jan 2007, and have been posting photos in my blog.

Governments who are wooing the big-spending tourists at the expense of budget travelers need to review their strategies.


  1. Very insightful. Very informative.
    However, the form of 'pollution' that the budget travellers bring would be the patronizing of the women of pleasures. Every 1 in 4 is infected with HIV. Scary huh?

  2. Cocka,
    Big spenders patronize good time girls, too. I read that in Bangkok, there are night spots which specially serve Arabs.

  3.! Just kidding.

    KS, interesting post. Thanks for sharing.