BANGKOK — A popular travel subsidy program met an abrupt end on Tuesday after the government put it on an indefinite hold, citing discoveries of corruption and bribery among participating hotels.
Over 300 hotels are under investigation for overstating the cost of accommodation and making up ghost bills in order to file for bogus reimbursement from the government, officials said. The news was a blow to many hotel operators who were hoping the subsidy would encourage travels in the peak month of December.
“This was a good project which led to unexpected uptick in tourists arrivals. But what should we do now?” Kitti Tiessakul, an advisor to the Federation of Northern Tourism Associations, said by phone. “It’s a shame because the package resuscitates the economy.”
Kitti, who is also a hotelier himself, also warned that tourism in the northern region during the New Year holidays will definitely suffer without some version of the stimulus.
The first phase of the 22-billion baht “We Travel Together” was launched in July as a bid to revive domestic tourism amid the coronavirus pandemic and border shutdowns. Its second phase was supposed to launch on Wednesday, just in time for the New Year season, and last until April.
The program allowed registered Thai travelers to reimburse 40 percent of hotel costs, capped at 3,000 per night, as well as bills of restaurants and shops of 600 baht per day. Air tickets can also be reduced by 40 percent, up to 3,000 baht per round trip.
But the Tourism Authority of Thailand suspended the project on Tuesday and announced probes into 312 hotels for falsifying their financial records. The investigation will also look into 200 shops and restaurants suspected of similar wrongdoing.
“We don’t know when it will be reintroduced yet,” Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yutthasak Supasorn on the phone Tuesday. “We will take legal actions against them to the fullest.”
The governor said he doesn’t know yet what the exact legal penalty will be handed out to business operators and individuals found guilty of fraudulent practice.
However, a prominent trade representative said the suspension of “We Travel Together” is unnecessarily penalizing the entire industry, which is already struggling to survive amid the global pandemic.
“What’s happening is that our expected bookings have been immediately affected,” said Bundarik Kusolvityalat, a board advisor of the Thai Hotel Association, whose membership includes 900 hotels around the kingdom.
“I want them to act quickly and make things clear. Without this scheme, some hotels will not be able to get any booking.”
Bundarik acknowledged that there were some cases of fraud in the program; some hotels marked up their bills as high as 7,000 baht per night even though their normal nightly rates were slightly over 1,000 baht, she said.
But she also urged the tourism authorities to relaunch the campaign “within days” to ward off any potential damages; the first phase of “We Travel Together” alone was responsible for at least 5 million hotel bookings around Thailand, while the second phase, which is now on hold, is expected to bring another 1 million bookings.
“I hope [travelers] will still get to spend their vacation time happily,” Bundarik said.
Tourism authorities estimate Thailand will lose 1.69 trillion baht in revenues due to the travel restrictions amid the pandemic this year.