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I was walking in my neighbourhood early Thursday morning as I always do to pick up my regular street-side roasted chicken for breakfast. There was a snaking line of driverless taxis sprawling bumper to bumper up to the top of the lane or ‘soi’ as we call them in Thailand.  This is not a strange thing to see in our neighbourhood, especially given that there is a high density of hotels in this area.  What caught my attention this morning however were the cries of a foreign lady who had seemingly just checked out of one of those hotels.  The lady was frantically crying out “I’m going to be late! I’m going to miss my flight!” while two men were holding her back not allowing her to get into a taxi that she had hailed down to take her to the airport. Another man had taken her luggage hostage eventually taking it across to the other side of the road, and another man was telling the taxi that had stopped to pick her up in no uncertain terms that he better get out of there – ‘or else’.

Blood boiling I crossed the road and stepped into the scene.  Pointing at the taxi that she had hailed, I asked the lady if she would like help putting her luggage into the car.  By this time the lady was distraught and thought that I too might have been there to accost her saying “If it’s your taxi, take it – I’m sorry”.  I said “No, I understand that this is your taxi and you want to take it to the airport.  You have the right to take any taxi you like.  Would you like me to help you put your luggage into this taxi for you?”.   At that moment one of the men jumped in and said in Thai that I should get out of there too and that she may only travel in one of their cars.  Despite the line of taxis snaking up the street, she had to wait another several minutes until ‘their guy’ pulled up in his car.  They took her back and placed it in it on the other side of the road and finally escorted her into that car.  These guys refuse to use meters and I suspect that she paid an extortionate rate to get to the airport.

This is just one of what would probably be hundreds of harrowing ‘taxi’ stories that occur in Bangkok every day.  Thailand isn’t unique when it comes to hotels or certain groups within the hotel like the concierge department having to ‘do deals with the devil’ to ensure that the uneasy relationship between the local transportation syndicates and the hotel doesn’t boil over into something that would be bad for everybody.  I had a recent experience in Penang, Malaysia where normal taxis were ‘discouraged’ from picking up guests from the hotel. Any taxi that picked up guests and took them into town incurred a ‘surcharge’ for the guest which meant that the fare would be around three times more expensive than what it should be if the meter were used.  I was told by the taxi driver in Penang that the rate is set by employees in the hotel, though I have been told by the General Manager of that hotel that he was unaware of any such practice.

Where Should Hoteliers Draw the Line?

Very often a new general manager will find himself in a new hotel in a country that is not their own and have to find a way of running the hotel, keeping the staff and guests happy as well as not disrupt the local status quo in the area too much, lest they might find themselves in a situation out of their depth.  They need to learn the ropes of the area that they have moved to and foster the right relationships with the right people to enable them to do their jobs effectively.

One hotelier mentioned to us at that they tried many strategies to try and keep the local taxi ‘mafias’ at bay.  At one stage, he even allowed them to come in and would serve them complimentary tea, coffee and snacks in the coffee shop and in return hoped that they would be fair and not extort guests and allow guests to hail their own metered cab if they wanted to.  He said that that deal lasted for about a month before they fell back into their old patterns.

Where it seems like the local authorities cannot or aren’t willing to crack down on these practices by the local transportation gangs, should hotel management make deals with them? Should hoteliers turn a blind eye when they see their concierge department get kick-backs for sending business to these drivers when guests require transportation rather than call regular taxis? After all, the local taxis might cause a ruckus anyway if they were to call anyone outside of the local ‘syndicate’.

Through the eyes of the locals, it would seem that the acceptance (albeit under duress) by the hotels, of these taxi practices has created an environment where taxis in general will refuse to pick up anybody not willing to be extorted.  This means that taxis are not an option for locals.  Instead we must use our own transportation or use services like Uber or Grabcar which don’t always have cars available.

How should hoteliers handle this situation?  How do you explain to your guests why they must accept being extorted?

Tough questions, but ones that need to be answered quickly as stories like the one I opened this article with will continue to damage the reputation of hotel brands, the country’s image and ultimately the industry in general.