Gastro diplomacy and effectiveness on Thailand.
There is an old proverb that most people know; “The way to a mans heart, is through his stomach”. Of course this is widely seen as a proverb to win someones affection, but we can think of it in a wider context. The way to win foreign publics over, might as well happen through their stomachs.
Thailand was known previously through its beautiful nature, white sandy beaches and paradise islands combined with happy and generous people, buddhas and of course the sex tourism. Origins for the association of Thailand and its’ sex tourism started during the Vietnam war when the United States proposed a treaty with Thailand to get their soldiers a relief allowing them to retreat to Thailand for ‘Rest and Recreation’ (1). After that, prostitution has flourished and tourism from the West was highly for this purpose even to the extent where children were acting out as prostitutes (2).
Needless to say that this was not a desirable image Thailand wanted to uphold, and as the law enforcement started to do their job to reduce the illegal sex industry, the government wanted to change the view the country was perceived internationally. Gastro diplomacy is the practice seeks to make a national image better by promoting national delicacies, and in Thailand’s case, this was the perfect way to start reforming her reputation in the global stage.
Leah Selim explains perfectly how important food is to create an image and build bonds between people as one can see from this video below:
Thailand was a pioneer in this practice of gastro diplomacy, by offering affordable loans and grants to small businesses for her people around the world. Since 2003 the government has supported this with a yearly budget of 500 million baht which comes to approximately 10 million pounds (4). There was already about 5,500 Thai restaurants around the world in the year 2002 but with this help the government wanted to increase the number to 8,000 by the year 2003, and they have succeeded unbelievably well, it also created a new kind of tourism to Thailand, which was culinary tourism, where people travel there to learn how to cook Thai food and explore all the possibilities within it. Sam Chapple-Sokol, a researcher of gastro diplomacy said that “you can go to a Thai restaurant and eat Thai food and meet Thai people and understand more of what that culture is about”,(3) which was more than welcome for improving Thailand’s image and raising awareness for the good aspect of the country and drawing the negative connotations about Thailand away from the mainstream.
Obviously Thailand still does suffer from a bad image, but due to this, not in the same extent than just a decade ago. Because they have successfully mostly eliminated the sex industry image, the good qualities of Thailand are more on the show in the global stage, and tourist view Thailand more through its beautiful nature, white sandy beaches and paradise islands combined with happy and generous people, buddhas and of course the delicious food!
Bon appetit, or ทานให้อร่อย (taan hâi a-ròi) as they say!
Truong, T. (1990) ‘Sex, Money and Morality’, Zed Books Ltd., London, UK.