The festival finale drew to a close nine days of honouring the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods, but this year there was a marked difference – the lack of tourists lining the streets present to witness the spectacle.
The festival has always been an attraction for ethnic Chinese in the region – from mainland China but especially the Baba Nyonya or ‘Peranakan’ Straits Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore. Also, for years the festival also drew travellers from around the world who had seen photos of the Mah Song and their incredible range of facial piercings and read the reports that inspired them to come see the festival for themselves.
This year, however, the numbers didn’t come.
In numbers, five years ago (in 2013), 26.56 million tourists came to Thailand. Last year it was 35.38mn. This year, including the ‘plunge’, the country is still on track to host at least some 32mn tourists.
So it’s not the numbers, it’s the lack of interest. The plethora of smaller ‘village vegetarian festivals’ now held around the country – and those held in Bangkok – during the same nine days may account for poor turnout, and at some point all major tourism locales around the world suffer ‘destination fatigue’, but the ominous lack of tourists at this year’s Vegetarian Festival is foreboding.
What has grown over the same time is the number of comments and feedback branding the festival as non-genuine, nothing more than a spectacle put on to draw tourists to the island.
The Phuket News will not question the sincerity of the devotees who take part in the festival. It is a matter of belief and a form of local culture. That is for each person to decide for him or herself. But what has been put forward as plain evidence of the showmanship are the facial piercings using beach umbrellas, spanners, six-shooter revolvers and all sorts of ‘non-traditional’ items.
The Phuket News urges the people involved in Vegetarian Festival to reflect on the effect this might be having, and perhaps give the festival a chance to get back to its roots.