INTERVIEW BANGKOK POST: Training the spotlight on Isan

Newspaper section: Horizons

It’s clear from the look on her face that Arunsri Srimekhanon Sastraniti has some fond memories of the 32 years she’s spent at the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Arunsri Srimekhanon Sastraniti
is confident that she can boost
tourism to the Northeast.

“I consider myself very lucky to have been able to work there for more than three decades,” enthused Arunsri, a decisive, results-oriented person who’s currently TAT’s executive director for Isan, the Kingdom’s northeastern region.

“One of the good things about the job is that there’s a reshuffle every four to six years and we get moved to a new department. That’s given me some great opportunities to learn about the different types of work within an organisation which I’ve come to love. The variety of experiences I’ve had have also helped me grow as a person.”

A former secondary-school teacher, Arunsri is a something of a self-starter and, earlier this year, initiated the TAT Voluntourism Project, a scheme whereby universities send students to do voluntary work in communities which are thought to have potential to become tourist destinations. The youngsters familiarise themselves with the rhythms and lifestyles of a place by staying there for a time and assisting the locals with their daily chores. The idea has already been launched in Isan and in the Central Plains and Arunsri says the feedback so far has been very positive.

Attracting tourists to the Northeast is not the easiest of tasks, she said, since many people have a negative perception of it as an arid and economically deprived region. That public image is something she’s confident she can change, however.

“Since Isan is home to several different cultures, its strength lies in its diversity, in the different lifestyles and the wealth of local wisdom, as reflected in the art, music and cuisine found there. There’s a plethora of archaeological evidence to prove that this part of the country was inhabited by a succession of ancient civilisations. It’s a classic destination where visitors can not only enjoy a holiday but also learn something about regional history. With this as our focus, we want to highlight the role the Northeast has played as a cradle of learning and civilisation.”

What’s been the most difficult aspect of promoting the Northeast?

Probably the hardest part is erasing the popular perception of it as a hot, dry place with little in the way of scenic beauty and where the few attractions are so distant from one another as to make travel inconvenient. Once we’ve dispelled this negative image I think that people will start flocking to the region !

What kind of feedback did you and your colleagues at TAT get from the Amazing Isan Fair 2009 (held earlier this year)?

We were quite happy with the generally positive impact it had. It was intended to be a platform for private-sector operators based in Isan, a chance for them to get some direct exposure to the consumer market. We were able to offer a number of reasonably priced tour packages and, most importantly, give the public an idea of what Isan is famous for. We’re now organising media-familiarisation trips along the thematic routes that TAT has worked out in association with the private sector, namely, the Ancient Civilisation, Khmer Civilisation, Dinosaur, Dharma, Amazing Catholic Tour, Unseen Isan and Charming Mekong routes.

We’re also concentrating on improving the quality of maps, CDs, brochures and other written promotional material on Isan in English, Japanese and Vietnamese in order to more effectively target both the expat communities here and the overseas market.

The fact that Isan is such a reasonably priced destination must also be an advantage, surely ?

Yes, travelling in Isan is most inexpensive. In fact, the cost of food and accommodation there is lower than that in any other region in the country. You can find a clean place to stay with basic amenities for a mere 500 baht a night. We also recommend that you travel around by train because it helps you better appreciate the scenic landscapes.

Northeasterners are also a pretty down-to-earth lot; they’re content if they can make ends meet so tourists don’t need to worry about being ripped off by the locals. And, given its strategic position bordering Laos and Cambodia, Isan is increasingly becoming a jumping-off point for people who are interested in exploring the Mekong region.

Where in the Northeast do you head for when you feel like chilling out ?

It really depends on my mood; Isan has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, food and adventure that I often feel spoiled for choice! But I always find waterfalls - and Isan has so many of them - a great place to unwind and relax.

Bron: Bangkok Post /