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Government agency plans ‘Army of Ants’ to restart tourism

Digital-economy organization’s different approach to paving the way for economic recovery

The Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA) believes that a new approach is needed to attract tourists to Thailand as the country recovers from the COVID-19 crisis. Among other things, it is proposing a swarm of small and easily accessible internet platforms that it likens to an “army of ants”, to tell stories about small attractions, events and drawcards.

The agency, formed by the government in 2017 to promote the adoption of digital technology as a spur to economic growth, admits that it cannot offer direct help to tourism operators because of budget restraints, and it cannot suddenly bolster the stricken tourism industry. Instead, it is focused on preparing the industry “for what will come next”, in the belief that, with good preparation, the confidence of tourists will grow and, by then, Thailand’s tourism industry will be ready with an impressive welcome. 

DEPA’s President, Dr. Nuttapon Nimmanphatcharin,says that in his opinion, Thailand’s economy was stagnant before the pandemic struck. Exports were slow because of slackening global demand and the agricultural sector had not added much value to the country’s gross domestic product. Tourism was good, but then came COVID-19 and it is now staggering badly. Thailand’s revenue has plunged, and the government faces the big expense of “shelling out money” to support the people. 

New style, content-driven tourism

Dr. Nuttapon believes tourism will change in the post-COVID period. He expects tourists to do more research ahead of their trips, searching for information and making solid preparations before setting out for their destinations. First and foremost, they will want to be assured that their health is safe, and second, they will want to save money. Believing in this new tourism trend, DEPA has explored the creation of “stories” and presenting content on an internet platform that can put target areas on the tourism map. If the stories catch the attention of people, demand for tourism will grow, along with tourist spending. 

“I don’t think tourists will walk around while studying a map in their hands anymore,” Dr. Nuttapon says. “Tourists who are not in the high-end group will be trying to save money. They will study related information in advance.” 

DEPA is now looking for startups that will help with development of content. It is also searching for tourism operators who understand what the agency is trying to do and share belief in the same concept of tourism revival. Content developers and tourism operators can then work together to develop a Thai-food platform. 

“In our plans, a tourism platform will include food content. There will be information on restaurants and authentic Thai food. Along the way to attractions, there is street food to enjoy. Some of these food shops may even have a Michelin Star or more. Stories on the platform will show to the world that when people visit Thailand, they do not just stay overnight at a hotel. They will come to indulge in Thai experiences that are created by stories on the platform, and spend their money. We are spurring both tourists’ demand and spending as we wait for Thai tourism to rebound,” Dr. Nuttapon explains. 

He says the development of content requires content creators and storytellers who are capable of turning existing information into interesting stories. Storytellers are different from tour guides in that they focus on telling a story that celebrates Thai tourist places, Thai arts and Thai culture. 

Focus on niche markets, without competing against big operators

Dr Nuttapon points out that tourism is a “money game”. Competition is rife as investors pour in money to pursue benefits. In this situation, it is unrealistic to drive small operators against “the giants”. DEPA has therefore designed its platform for niche markets, hoping that small operators will be able to stay in business. They may even forge partnerships with big operators, all of whom have their own markets. 

This approach aims at offering alternatives to tourists. Some may want to stay at luxury hotels and indulge in premium services. However, others may prefer local accommodation and immersion in the uniqueness of local cultures that are not available anywhere else. This approach also offers the choice of staying at upscale hotels, but taking tours in which they can explore local ways of life. 

“We are going to develop a Thai platform,” Dr. Nuttapon says. “In pursuit of this vision, we are looking for partners. We are ready to support our partners, and together, we will be able to achieve something. If you have money, but lack technologies, we will match you with startups that can provide you with tech solutions.” 

DEPA expects the platform to be launched before July. As an initiative for Thai tourism, it will be developed by Thais with Thai investment, and will pave the way for local businesses to thrive in the tourism sector. It will give tourists new alternatives – things people have never seen before. These alternatives will cover culture, attractions, arts and foods. 

“I am not sure that I can call the offers on the platform ‘unseen’. But they are what locals say that visitors to their hometown should never miss, and if tourists do miss these things, their trips will not be complete,” he says. 

DEPA’s tourism platform will also fill missing links and connect small operators with existing large platforms. Organizations or people that join the platform development as partners need not come from the digital industry. They may “jump in” to drive changes that promise to support their businesses, which may come, for example, from the property or hotel industries. 

“I think these steps will diversify the tourism business by using a new business model in the post-COVID-19 era,” Dr. Nuttapon says. “DEPA has stepped in to support small operators, plugging them in and connecting them.” 

“Army of Ants” to boost confidence

In addition to developing a single platform for tourism at a time when the industry looks set to rebound with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, DEPA has also been trying to promote a tourism-driven economy in other ways. Its goal is to ensure that tourism rides back in style and with security, as it becomes a driving force behind the country’s GDP growth.

“To boost confidence in tourism, we have made use of various technologies. For example, Phuket’s self-quarantine on yachts used a tech solution from NB-IoT, a startup that developed a wristband for self-quarantining foreigners. AIS was a partner in this scheme. While NB-IoT provided an Internet of Things solution, AIS offered the communications technology,” Dr. Nuttapon says. 

Such a move, he says, creates new opportunities in various dimensions. It will support DEPA’s tourism platform, which will be launched as confidence rises in Thailand’s ability to prevent imported COVID-19 cases.

DEPA also intends to develop what Dr. Nuttapon calls “an army of ants”, and when this “army” shows itself to the world, confidence in Thai tourism will soar. When the world is ready to travel again, Thailand’s international arrivals will fast return to normal. 

Plans include not only one major platform, but also various small platforms to comprehensively support tourism. These platforms will offer much more than tourism information or public-health data. In the pipeline now are plans to develop car-sharing and local transportation platforms.

In Dr. Nuttapon’s view, these are not stimulus measures. Rather, DEPA is making preparations to meet a long-suppressed demand for tourism. Both Thais and foreigners are now dying to once again explore tourist attractions. If Thailand presents exciting content about what is waiting for them, along with healthcare information, there is a good chance that Thailand will rank among the most popular destinations.

“We are not going to ask for a budget to stimulate tourism. Our focus is on back-office operations. We think about how Thais are going to prepare themselves and their services. Imagine what will happen if the tourism-stimulus measures suddenly bring in lots of tourists. Where will new-wave operators stand? Can they compete against big platforms? DEPA thinks about these operators. That’s why we are doing this,” Dr. Nuttapon explains. 

He adds that Thailand’s financial resources are dwindling and finding funding is difficult. The voice of DEPA, a relatively small government agency, may not be loud enough, so the agency believes that developing its “Army of Ants” will make a difference. As the army grows strong, with small but easily accessible platforms, a sustainable ecosystem will be ready for the new era. Small operators, such as the owners of small restaurants, will be able to connect to these platforms and to storytellers. With such an ecosystem, Thais can support one another. 

“We should develop such a supportive ecosystem in order to strengthen the country’s tourism industry, which should shine alongside Thailand’s strong public-health sector. If our platforms keep plugging in, our Army of Ants may one day turn into an Army of Queen Ants,” Dr. Nuttapon adds. 

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