If anyone needed any proof of how important tourism is to Thailand’s economy they need look no further than the gamble the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) took to launch a massive public relations (PR) campaign aimed at travel journalists while the political turmoil in the country remains unresolved.
With thousands of “anti-government” People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) members still occupying Government House, TAT and Thai Airways International (Thai) launched a massive PR campaign that will be remembered forever as one of the most ill-timed events ever.
From the northern most point of Mai Sai to the southern most point of Tanon Sukyang, 1,648km away, the word on the lips of everyone in Thailand’s tourism industry is “nit noi” (a little bit).
In the normally bustling backpacker section of Bangkok tour and travel shop operators all say this is the quietest September and October they can remember.
Tourism numbers paint a bleak picture
In the Northern tourist destination of Chiang Mai the glistening new 384-room, 4-star Le Meridien hotel has again postponed its opening, standing like a giant yellow monolith overshadowing the sparsely patronised Chiang Mai night bazaar where vendors sit and chat among themselves due to the lack of tourists.
Likewise hundreds of rental motorbikes stand forlornly awaiting customers, street massage girls while away the hours plaiting each others hair or talking on mobile phones, bar staff polish already impeccably clean glassware, and restaurant wait staff um, wait, optimistically scouring the empty streets for customers.
In the southern Thailand tourist destinations the situation is almost identical. Beach sun-chairs remain empty, the normally jammed clubs and beer bars blast music to empty dance floors, and diving instructors spend most of their time out of the water.
With tourism in Thailand accounting for more than six per cent of GDP, or around $US16 billion, there is little doubt that TAT and Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports (MOTS) has been under considerable pressure to act in the face of plummeting tourist arrival figures.
150,000 stranded air travellers
Following the lifting of the state of emergency that was applied in Bangkok on September 2 after yellow-shirt protesters clashed with police and stranded 150,000 tourists by closing the Phuket, Krabi and Hat Yai airports, the ministry wrote to 26 embassies which had earlier issued warnings to their citizens to avoid traveling to Thailand, to inform them of the current situation.
It then dispatched a team of officials for a roadshow mission in China to clarify ‘the real political situation’ in the kingdom.
With tourism operators Thailand-wide reporting massive cancellations, similar roadshows were planned for Japan, Korea, India, Russia, and various European countries.
Tourism in Thailand has increased from 630,000 foreign tourists in 1970 to 14.6 million last year. The industry accounts for more than 11 per cent of the economy and TAT was forecasting 15.5 million foreign tourists this year.
However, following the first round of clashes between anti-government yellow-shirt demonstrators and police and the closure of the three airports, Thailand tourist arrivals have plummeted.
Travel industry head in tears
Last month Maiyarat Pheerayakoses, president of the Association of Domestic Travel Agents, broke down in tears as she reported at a meeting at the (MOTS) that Thailand travel agents were reporting 90 per cent cancellations for local tour packages.
Across the Land of Smiles (LOS) similar reports were turning the smiles into grimaces.
As the high season got underway on September 15, official figures for Pattaya indicated a drop in tourism for August of around 20 per cent over 2007 figures.
On the holiday island of Phuket things were not much better. Phuket Tourist Association (PTA) president, Somboon Chirayus was quoted saying, there have been many cancellations among foreign tour groups.
Cancellation rates among Japanese visitors to Thailand are the highest, at about 50 per cent.
Bhuritt Maswongssa, marketing director for the Thai Hotels Association (THA) Southern Chapter, reported that hotel occupancy on Phuket for September was 50 per cent, compared to 70 per cent the previous year.
Phuket’s Marriot Hotel alone reported more than $4.5 million in cancellations for September, mostly from corporate bookings.
Charoen Wang-Ananont, president of the Thai Tourism Services Association (TTSA) said last month that foreign tourist arrivals had fallen by 70 per cent, while local tourism was down 60 per cent and hotel room occupancy down by up to 40 per cent.
The country’s national flag carrier, already facing mammoth losses for the year, reported passengers from China, Korea, and Japan dropping by around 20 per cent in August, while those from Europe fell by between 5 and 10 per cent.
Foreign investment slumps
Foreign investment in Thailand has also been badly affected by the ongoing PAD protests, with Kasikorn (Bank) Research Center predicting the country would fail to meet its 2008 target of Bt600 billion ($17.647 billion) in foreign investment, with the number of approved projects dropping 21 per cent, and investment value down by almost 46 per cent.
Weekly crisis management meetings by TAT officials showed that the political turmoil was likely to result in an 8 per cent fall in international tourists to below 14 million.
With the political situation appearing to have stabilised somewhat, even though the government has been forced to convert Thailand’s old Don Muang airport into a temporary government house, TAT took a gamble and decided to launch a massive rescue operation for Thailand’s ailing tourism industry.
Tourism marketing fail
Showing a total lack of originality, coming on top of the “Visit Thailand Year 2008-2009” campaign, TAT launched the “Visit Amazing Thailand Year 2009” campaign. One thousand international travel journalists and tour operators were flown in from Asia, Europe, and North America.
At the same time as Mrs Manoharn, was welcoming delegates, police and yellow-shirt protestors were clashing on the streets in the bloodiest day of protest since the PAD began its campaign six weeks ago.
While Ms Manoharn was painting a rosy picture of Thailand as a safe, desirable and peaceful country, and explaining that the protests were evidence of a democracy in action, peaceful, and localised, people were being killed, having limbs blown off.
Homemade bombs were exploding as hundreds of anti-riot police attempted to clear a way into Government House, firing up to 50 rounds of CS (tear) gas into thousands of yellow-shirted protesters who had blockaded and fortified the seat of government with barbed wire and car tyres.
While tourism and travel delegates were being told that In the first seven months of this year foreign visitors to Thailand exceeded 9.14 million, a rise of 12.65 per cent over the same period last year, more than 400 people were being ferried to the city’s hospitals.
A field day for the media
As the travel industry scribes were preparing to set out on their all expenses paid trips to attractions and destinations in Northeastern and Northern Thailand, and the Andaman region, newspapers around the world were churning out graphic photos of the clash and “Bloody Bangkok” headlines.
With Thailand’s peak tourist season only a matter of weeks away, even the most optimistic in the Thailand travel and tourism industry are expecting massive revenue declines in the months ahead, with several predicting some operators will fail to survive the season.
One inbound tour operator who didn’t wish to be identified, said, what happened on the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday will “tarnish Thailand as a tourist destination for a long time to come”.
Tourists not affected, but…
Although the Government House confrontation was very, very localised and nowhere near the tourist areas, but coming on top of the airport closures and rail system shut-downs of last month many tourists are just not going to risk being caught up in this.
“I think you could stand on the mountains and shout as much as you like that none of this is affecting tourists in Thailand and people in other countries are just not going to listen”, he said.
For TAT, it’s going to take more than a few incense sticks at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or free elephant rides for travel industry scribes to write eloquently enough to reverse the slump in Thailand tourist arrivals.
The street riots have already seen Thai’s executive vice-president, Pandit Chanapai, declare the situation has deteriorated “from bad to worse, well beyond our expectation”.
The comments came as the airline foreshadowed further flight cutbacks, particularly on regional routes, and disclosed it had filled only 70 per cent of its seats in the third quarter.
”What is terrible about the current political crisis is its open-ended nature. Unlike 9/11, SARS and the tsunami, we don’t know when it will end”, Mr Chanapai said.
Thai reported a loss of Bt7.04 billion ($203.281 million) for the first half of the year and cost savings measures have seen it cancel several long-haul, regional, and internal flight sectors in attempt to reduce its cash bleeding.
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He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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