By Beh Lih Yi
At Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, a video repeats scenes of tourists visiting Thailand’s sunny beaches and its vibrant nightlife, but at the end comes a warning.
“Human trafficking and slavery are against the law in Thailand. Perpetrators will be severely punished,” it says, followed by a hotline number for people to report cases.
From airports to shopping malls, Thailand is ramping up a campaign targeting tourists in its latest effort to keep the country free from human trafficking, as officials eye better international ratings.
The Southeast Asian nation is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best tourists destinations. Government data showed Thailand welcomed a record 35 million visitors in 2017, and forecasted it to rise to 37.6 million this year.
But it has also come under the international spotlight in recent years over what rights groups describe as widespread human trafficking, including women forced into selling sex and fishermen trapped in conditions akin to modern slavery.
The U.S. State Department last year left Thailand on a Tier 2 Watchlist - just above the lowest ranking of Tier 3 - in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, saying it had not done enough to tackle human smuggling and trafficking.
Eyeing a better ranking, the government has vowed a clean-up. In recent months, it partnered with airlines and charities to warn visitors against involvement in trafficking, while urging them to spot and report potential cases.
“Every effort is important,” Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, a Thai government spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are doing our best,” he said. “Therefore we hope the situation in Thailand will be better, and it will be recognized by the international community.”
A growing number of countries around the world are turning to the tourism sector to help combat human trafficking, including training frontline hotel and airline staff to spot the signs.
There has also been a rise of “advocacy tourism”, where holiday-makers sign up travel packages to learn about issues like modern slavery.
IN-FLIGHT VIDEOS, HOTEL TRAININGS
At Thai airports, banners greet visitors with warnings that human trafficking could “destroy” the country. A video flashes the message: “Keep Thailand the Land of Smiles for all”.
The government has also enlisted Thai Airways to show anti-trafficking in-flight videos on its international routes since February, said Nuttavika Tamthai, a spokeswoman for the national carrier.
In shopping malls, cinemas and train stations across the capital, Bangkok, videos show visitors how to look out for signs of human trafficking.
Some highlight sex exploitation, while another shows a child begging under a separate campaign called “Can You See Me?”.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Malina Enlund from the anti-trafficking group A21, which has partnered with Thai authorities on the campaign since mid-2017.
“The Thai government alone cannot solve the problem. We need the hotel groups, we need the tourists, we need everybody who can to join in,” Enlund said.
The Australia-based group is training hotel staff in Thailand’s seaside resort of Pattaya - a hotspot for sex tourism - on how to spot trafficking signs.
The Thai tourism body said in March that Thailand is aiming to move forward as a “quality destination” and it strongly opposed any form of sex tourism.
An estimated 425,500 people live in conditions of modern slavery in Thailand, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016 by charity Walk Free Foundation, including migrant workers from Cambodia and Laos and women exploited in the sex industry.
Published on Reuters on April 17, 2018