Foreign language skills a key need for surging tourism

Posted on January 19, 2015


Many falsely claim that tourism is the world’s largest industry. It is not, but it is the world’s largest service sector industry. It is also rapidly growing globally, outperforming the wider economy, primarily because of the ageing of populations of modern industrial countries. Declining oil prices will also contribute to the growth in tourism.

Globally, tourism generates approximately 266 million jobs, is 9.5 per cent f the world gross domestic product (GDP), and is a US$7 trillion (Bt32.5 trillion) industry.

Thailand is well positioned in the global tourism industry. In terms of absolute numbers, it ranks number 11 in the world in tourist visitors. If adjusted for size of population, it moves up to number 8. In 2013, Time magazine ran an article noting that Bangkok was the most visited city in the world (15.98 million annual visitors).

Thailand benefits from being right in the centre of dynamic Southeast Asia and at the crossroads between East Asia and Europe and East Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Also making it attractive are its rich cultural heritage, eternal summer, relatively low costs, warm and friendly people, excellent tourist physical infrastructure, and having over 1,000 beautiful islands.

Thailand’s famous Oriental Hotel, for a record setting 10 straight years (1981-1990), was ranked the world’s number one hotel. Many famous celebrities have stayed at the Oriental such as Joseph Conrad, Queen Sofia of Spain, George HW Bush, Prince Charles and Diana, and Mel Gibson.

Thailand is also fortunate to be the gateway to other attractive destinations in the Asean region such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Laos, Bagan/Mandalay in Myanmar, and Hue/Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. This will be increasingly important in the Asian Economic Community era.

One reason Thailand has the world’s lowest unemployment rate (0.6 percent), by far among 58 countries rated by the Economist magazine, is its vibrant tourist industry.

From June to November 2014, a period of political stability, tourist visitors to Thailand increased 64 per cent. The economist, Dr Sutapa Amornvivat, of Siam Commercial Bank’s Economic Intelligence Centre, states that tourism brings roughly one trillion baht to the Thai economy and is approximately nine per cent of GDP.

In places like both Thailand and Vietnam there is now concern about the quality of tourists being attracted. Bhutan, for example, greatly limits tourism to only those at the high economic end able to afford their extremely high visa fee. The average tourist in Thailand stays for about 10 days. This number needs to be increased significantly to enhance the economic benefits of tourism.

Generally there are four genres of tourists: ordinary tourists; intelligent travellers (including eco-tourists); cultured travellers; and meetings, incentives, conventions, and events (MICE) visitors. Individuals in the first category are the least attractive. Thailand should strive to increase numbers in the latter three categories. Fortunately, Thailand has impressive and extensive MICE facilities.

Interestingly, in recent years, the percentage of visitors to Thailand who are male has been gradually declining (currently about 59 per cent), which is a positive indicator.

The huge number of jobs generated by tourism can neither be automated nor exported. While the tourist industry is labour-intensive, it unfortunately is generally not skill-intensive. The most common job in the hotel industry is cleaning hotel rooms, which does not even require literacy. The better jobs in the tourist industry, however, such as management, tour and convention planners, and tour guides, are indeed skill-intensive.

Despite its size and growth, the field of tourism in university studies tends to be marginalised. Many business schools, for example, do not have academic programmes related to tourism. An exception to this marginalisation, is the prestigious Ivy League university Cornell in the US which has had since 1922 a highly regard School of Hotel Administration, which has pioneered hospitality education.

Fortunately nearly all of Thailand’s Rajabhat Universities have tourist programmes and hotels on campus where students in this field can gain practical experience. Silpakorn University also has an excellent programme in this area. I remember visiting Rajabhat Chiang Mai University and being impressed with their offering Spanish primarily because of the need to serve Spanish-speaking tourists from Spain and Latin America.

One key skill related to tourism is language ability. Based on visitors coming to Thailand, a key priority should go to the study of Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and Korean. It is important for Thailand to have adequate numbers with good communicative competence in these languages currently spoken by the largest numbers of tourists coming to Thailand.

With respect to Asean visitors (roughly 25 per cent of the visitors to Thailand), the largest numbers are coming from neighbouring Malaysia, Laos, and Vietnam. Since Malays tend to speak English well and since Thai and Lao are mutually intelligible, priority should be given to providing more Thais the opportunity to learn Vietnamese well.

In addition to language skills, those working in the tourist industry interacting with diverse cultures and nationalities need to have solid intercultural competence. Rigorous courses in this area need to be an integral part of the tourism curricula. It is also important to integrate effectively the teaching of other languages and cultures.

Apart from linguistic and cultural skills, those in the tourism field also need to learn many basics in terms of serving tourists well. In general Thailand does a reasonably good job of training Thais to have what in Spanish is called una buena educacion (a good education) which has nothing to do with years of formal schooling. This means good character, etiquette, thoughtfulness, respect, and politeness/being courteous.

These kinds of values seem to be emphasised as part of current educational reform efforts.

Key areas for priority are enhanced training and quality of those Thais studying tourism, improving train services to regional areas (which is happening), and strengthening transportation infrastructure outside Bangkok (non-polluting and attractive electric buses, for example) in popular destinations such as Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya.

With progress in such areas, Thailand has unrealised and unparalleled potential for continued growth in tourism, attracting even greater numbers of cultured and intelligent travellers.

Gerald W Fry

Distinguished International Professor

College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota

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