Film-festival probe may turn into box-office bomb
Industry observers say investigation by the Thai side could be derailed
As and when a government is formed, one of the first orders of business of the new tourism minister will be to manage the investigation into bribery allegations involving former Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Juthamas Siriwan.
Informed sources in the Thai tourism industry said that two committees have been set up: one within the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to dig up the internal documents related to the Bangkok International Film Festival, and another under the Ministry of Tourism and Sports to manage its external aspects and liaison with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The information gathered by both committees will then be compiled to see whether it warrants any further legal action on the Thai side, in addition to the arrests of the Americans alleged to be involved in the US.
An American producer and his wife were alleged late last year to have paid bribes to "a former TAT governor" in connection with the management of the Bangkok International Film Festival. While the former TAT governor is never specifically named in the US criminal complaint, the incident took place while Mrs Juthamas was head of the TAT.
However, there are growing fears that every effort will be made to thwart the investigation in Thailand. Said one senior official, without elaborating: "Those who are involved will try and prevent the matter from being pursued any further in Thailand.
"Mrs Juthamas has denied everything and threatened to sue the FBI. However, the issue is causing some sleepless nights for several officials, especially those who were known to have been in Mrs Juthamas' camp."
Said one industry executive: "These investigations are problematic for internal morale. There are cliques within the TAT, just like any other large organisation."
One TAT official said it was fortunate that the matter had come to light before the December 2007 elections.
Officials said they had received feedback that Mrs Juthamas, who resigned just before competing in the elections under the banner of the Puea Pandin party, would have sought a tourism role in some shape or form, had she been elected.
This could have involved a ministerial portfolio if Puea Pandin had become part of the coalition or a seat on one of the parliamentary tourism committees from where she could have been involved in industry decision-making.
The allegations have embarrassed the TAT which has never experienced anything like this in its 48-year history.
Said one official: "Look back all the way to the time of Gen Chalermchai Charuvastr (the first head of the former Tourism Organisation of Thailand), and down to (the late) Col Somchai Hiranyakit, Dharmnoon Prachuabmoh, Seree Wangpaichitr and Pradech Phayakvichien. They all had clean records."
Industry officials noted that the TAT's reputation was saved largely by the fact that one of the first actions taken by the present governor, Phornsiri Manoharn, a former TAT deputy governor of marketing, was to slash the film festival's budget and hand the whole thing over to local companies. The TAT now only plays a supportive role.
Among the private sector, the response has been pretty much a shaking of the heads because of the damage it does to the image of the Thai tourism industry at large, especially as they surfaced in the year that marked the 80th birthday of His Majesty the King.
Many in the private sector recalled that they had opposed Mrs Juthamas' appointment as governor in the first place but now say that many things now begin to make sense.
"During the tenure of the Thaksin administration, the TAT enjoyed record budgets," one senior sector executive said. "Thaksin himself had set a target of 20 million tourist arrivals by 2008, even though many in the private sector knew it was totally unrealistic.
"But, by citing the growing competitive nature of the global tourism industry and the marketing budgets of competing countries in Asean, the administration could always find a way to justify the massive budgets.
"And this does not include the huge extra budgets that were sought to justify bounceback campaigns after the various crises, such as Sars in 2003 or the tsunami 2004."
Another private-sector executive noted the lavish amounts spent when Mrs Juthamas attended the annual Cannes film festival. The official objective was to drum up support for the Bangkok International Film Festival, and promote Thailand as a location for Hollywood movies.
Even after her official retirement as governor at the end of the fiscal year 2005-06, Mrs Juthamas retained an obscure "advisory" position in the TAT for another year, and only vacated her TAT office at the end of the 2006-07 fiscal year in September 2007.
She had also pushed for the establishment of the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, set up after the entire conventions and incentives promotions unit was delinked from the TAT. TCEB reports neither to the TAT nor to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports but is a separate public-sector organisation in its own right.
Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mailed feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.