Family-friendly? The challenges facing Pattaya
Long the butt of knowing looks, lurid jokes and whispered conversations, Thailand's eastern seaboard city of Pattaya continues to push to rebrand itself as a family-friendly tourist destination.
Depending on your social circle, brand Pattaya conjures up images of pole-dancing bar girls and thieving ladyboys, or a relatively inexpensive seaside destination with safe beaches and cheap seafood.
Just 150 kilometers from Bangkok, Pattaya has transformed itself several times over the past few decades. It started out as a fishing village-cum-resort popular with Vietnam War servicemen and women on R and R during the 1960s.
Later, Bangkok residents started visiting to escape the chaos of the Thai capital on weekends. Then came the mass arrival of international tourists.
From all appearances, Pattaya is going through another metamorphosis as an even broader swathe of tourists jets in to sample the city's brand of sun, sea, sand and sybaritism.
While nobody could deny that brand Pattaya’s success was built largely on the back of sex tourism, city officials -- led by mayor Itthiphol Kunplome -- are attempting to change this and force sections of the city to clean up their act.
However, with Itthiphol jetting from one international travel expo to another hard-selling Pattaya as a "family-friendly" destination, the very things that contradict this image are failing to be addressed in a speedy fashion.
The realities on the ground
On Pattaya’s Beach Road, tourists are constantly hassled by touts pushing boat trips and jet-ski rentals.
Those who refuse can be subjected to verbal abuse, taunts and intimidation. At night the sidewalks are all but impassable as a small army of vendors sets up shop.
One major problem Thai and foreign visitors to Pattaya regularly face is the infamous jet-ski scam. Visitors who hire the craft are accused of having damaged them when they return to shore, with previously inflicted damage being cited to extort large amounts of money.
That the racket takes place directly in front of the Pattaya Police Station speaks volumes about the value the city places on any long-term quality tourism strategy. Foreign volunteers and Thailand Tourist Police were reportedly told not to get involved in the disputes, suggesting that higher powers are involved in the scam.
Pattaya City Hall is well aware of the situation, with reports such as "The Pattaya jet-ski scam in pictures" on blog "Thailand, land of Smiles" drawing mass attention to the situation. In response to local media reports and complaints by foreign diplomats, officials claim to be working on a solution to the problem.
Meanwhile, every day large numbers of tourists are rapidly finding that a 1,200 baht jet-ski hire ends up costing an additional 40,000 baht or more.
In terms of nightlife, though the Walking Street strip and the nearby sois generate billions of baht a year in tourism a dangerous and undesirable undercurrent remains just beneath the surface. Fortunately, the vast majority of tourists never experience this side of Pattaya.
While police have stepped up drug and age checks for adult entertainment workers, including those that cater predominantly to foreign men in search of young Thai male companions, illegal activity remains the norm. It is even openly discussed on internet forums such as Pattaya Addicts, a site frequented extensively by testosterone-charged expatriate beer and go-go bar owners and others enamored with the bar-room sex side of Pattaya.
In one discussion, "Do Not Film In Gogos," posters openly discuss how go-go bars pay off the police, nudity in the bars, how appropriate it is to give "a good bashing" to people caught filming these activities and abuse of official power.
'A five-star lifestyle at two-star prices'
Curiously, while happy to tell travel agents how “family-friendly” Pattaya is, mayor Itthiphol was less eager to discuss the matter with us. Numerous emails and telephone calls to City Hall and his secretary, as well as multiple messages on his two Facebook pages, went unanswered.
Other local business personalities, including the high profile “Pattaya Tony," whose photo appears on billboards all over the city, refused to discuss the topic unless provided with “a document stating that the interview can only be published with his approval of the final draft."
The newly appointed Pattaya Police chief, Police Colonel Nanthavut Suwanlaong, also failed to respond to requests to discuss the city's cleanup efforts.
Not so shy was high-profile Lions Club member, foreign volunteer police leader and chief executive officer of Pattaya People Media Group, Niels Colov, who has seen the city change dramatically over the last 27 years.
While assessing most of the changes as good, providing visitors and expatriate residents with “a five-star lifestyle at two-star prices,” Colov said the jet-ski scam, lack of a good tourist information system, dirty beaches and the harassment of tourists by touts promoting everything from island boat trips to live sex shows are causing serious harm to the “family-friendly” destination efforts of officials.
“Pattaya is really two different cities in one," he says. "You have Pattaya the tourist destination, which is seeing an increasing number of Russian and Middle East visitors, some of whom are coming with their families, and Pattaya the residential city with thousands of foreigners, more than 50 percent of whom are below 50 years old, settling here because of the climate and ability to have as normal a life as they could in their home country, but at a much lower cost of living.”
Colov says that while tourism is being hurt by the actions of a few, Pattaya is an extremely safe destination for families.
Most crime in the city is either between Thais, or involves the minority of tourists who get themselves into trouble in the adult entertainment precinct or foolishly strut around bare-chested with expensive gold chains around their necks, he said.
“The police have a very good network of informants and volunteers throughout the community and I would say it is almost impossible for foreigners to commit a crime in Thailand and get away with it," says Colov. "Those who commit crimes against foreigners are often quickly caught because of the informant network.
“One problem is that many of the city’s residents are itinerant and not registered in Pattaya, meaning the city’s police force of about 400 is about one third the size required."
Another man equally concerned by crimes and scams perpetrated against foreigners is Howard Miller, Britain’s honorary consul in Pattaya, who is kept busy helping British citizens who visit or live in the city.
One of seven honorary consuls in Pattaya, Miller says the post predominantly involves certifying documents and passports for expatriates, giving advice to those who overstay their visit visa, monitoring the welfare of British nationals arrested or jailed in Pattaya and acting as a channel for those who fall on hard times or end up in trouble to communicate with family or friends elsewhere in Thailand, or back in Britain.
Familiar with City Hall’s push to market Pattaya as a “family-friendly” destination, Miller says there are a number of underlying issues that need to be addressed before the slogan would be reflected by reality, though the basic infrastructure is in place.
“The jet-ski scam is a big concern and I receive numerous complaints about it, but there is little we can do apart from raise the matter with city officials and the police," says Miller.
"We can’t lend people money to settle the dispute, or get involved in negotiations between the two parties, just as we can’t give or lend money to people who spend all their savings indulging in the nightlife and find they have insufficient funds when it’s time to go home.
“Likewise, some people find themselves enticed into the flourishing drug scene and when arrested think all they need do is call the office and I’ll come down and get them released. The reality is the culture is very different to Britain and things are done differently here, while the British Foreign Office’s actions are regulated by international treaty.”
With increasing numbers of people being drawn to Pattaya because of its relatively inexpensive cost of living, warm climate and various “attractions," Miller says that those planning to visit should inform themselves of what he describes as the "local pitfalls."
"[They can't] think they can behave way beyond the norms acceptable in the U.K. Nor will the British Government step in when things go pear-shaped, wave a magic wand and make everything right," he says.
“In Thailand the smallest crime can merit sentences significantly more severe than meted out by U.K. courts, while street justice can be severe and quite brutal if visitors mix with the wrong people."
How to avoid the sleaze
Take away its sleazy section and Pattaya is much like any other mid-sized Thai city with the usual temples, vendor-crammed sidewalks and a few shopping malls thrown in for good measure -- but with an extensive range of high-rise condominiums and hotels for all budgets.
While admittedly colorful and vibrant, Pattaya’s entertainment district remains a small part of this city of 800,000 people. Families can largely avoid it by staying in nearby Jomtien, where the sea is not only considerably cleaner but the risk of being struck by boats and jet-skis is negligible.
Also, the “beer bar” culture is more subdued and the sex industry less evident –- at least for now.
But in both Pattaya and Jomtien visitors will find the majority of beachfront space occupied by deck chair and umbrella concessions. Those wishing to enjoy the sun, sand and water for free are forced to cram into small areas of beach between the concessionaires -- another frequent complaint from tourists that City Hall says it is trying to solve.
For families in search of more than endless days of sun, sand and saltwater, the number of family-orientated attractions in and around Pattaya is fairly limited, with many charging one price for Thais, often written in Thai script, and a considerably higher price for foreigners.
Pattaya Park is a somewhat sad affair whose main feature is a 170-meter-high tower offering flying-fox rides to the ground; there's also a dated water park, a mini roller-coaster and a pirate ship ride.
Add to this a small “underwater world” aquarium, the Pattaya floating markets, a couple of go-cart tracks, two wax figurine exhibits, a couple of elephant corrals, the Mini Siam & Mini Europe theme park and the beautiful Nong Nooch Gardens and Resort -- about 30 kilometers from Pattaya -- and the list of family attractions in Pattaya is just about summed up.
A work in progress
Having lived in Pattaya for nine years, Miller says the city’s international marketing efforts have led to an influx in the number of visitors from non-traditional tourism markets but the strong baht has seen the number of British visitors and residents decline.
Among the growing number of Russian and Indian tourists, visitors from the Middle East are also on the increase.
In the past, the small alleys and lanes behind Walking Street were the exclusive domain of establishments catering to teetotaling, shisha-smoking, predominantly Muslim visitors with little interest in the bar or sex scene.
But the changing visitor demographics have seen several Arabic-orientated establishments open on Walking Street, along with a number of higher class restaurants that cater to the halal dietary requirements of the new visitor mix.
Having transformed itself several times in the past already, Pattaya appears to be on the cusp of change again, although its attempts to become a true “family-friendly” destination are still some considerable time away and will not come without more aggressive action by City Hall and the local police force.