While in this latest case it is alleged that the tour company owner used a false identity to register his business – a clearly illegal act – the actual legality or otherwise of the so called “zero-dollar” tours remains in much murkier waters.
The vocal opponents of these tours, whose complaints led to the current “crackdown”, claim that they are of no benefit to Thailand’s tourism sector because the tourists, having paid all their costs upfront, do not spend any money in Thailand.
Worse, such tours are commonly accused of price-gouging the tourists at souvenir shops which, as the argument goes, are often owned by or aligned with the tour operator.
But when these “all inclusive” low-budget Chinese tour operators are clear with their customers about which shops they will be visiting as part of their itinerary while in Phuket, there is no misleading collusion to herd these tourists unwittingly into a particularly pricey souvenir shop.
And the issue of price-gouging is a non-starter when it comes to unessential products such as souvenirs – which according to the concept of supply and demand, are worth whatever people are willing to pay for them.
Just think of the government-mandated two-tier pricing for entry to the country’s national parks as a case in point.
So it seems clear that these “zero-dollar” tourists do spend plenty of money while in Thailand, but perhaps they are just spending it in the “wrong” places and this is what has upset their detractors.
In any case, the whole crackdown on “zero-dollar” operators seems clouded in corruption, favouritism, unspoken motivations and making up the law as you go along.
Meanwhile, recent reports from the hotel industry say there has been a re-emergence of interest by premium international hotel groups, such as Melia and Hyatt International, in the “all inclusive” holiday pricing model.
The reason for this renewed interest is attributed to the TUI Group, a leading global tourism conglomerate, recently launching its “all inclusive” Robinson Club resort in Khao Lak.
To that, Club Med, that great originator and bastion of “luxury all-inclusive holidays”, was one of the first international hotel franchises to open a resort in Phuket some 30 years ago. For them, “all-inclusive” was okay back then and remains okay today.
The sting is that the same argument against “zero-dollar” tourists could be easily made against these “quality” all-inclusive tourists – that they don’t spend and therefore don’t boost Thailand’s tourism revenues.
But it seems highly unlikely that any opposition to these “quality” tourists will be voiced as loudly, or gain any traction with the authorities.
Time will tell.