Friday, September 05, 2008

Thailand's tourism sector seeks ways to limit damage

Officials ponder how to protect Thai image


CHADAMAS CHINMANEEVONG CHATRUDEE THEPARAT

The country's lucrative tourism industry is looking for ways to revive Thailand's image among foreign visitors and to stem losses caused by the current political conflict. Also, as of yesterday, 14 countries had issued advisories warning their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Thailand or to exercise caution if they do go.

''The tourism business is in deep trouble and we should work together to solve it right now,'' said Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand.

Tourism accounts for about 6% of the national economy, and had been forecast to earn about 700 billion baht this year. However, the crisis is already estimated to be costing 400 million baht each day in lost tourist revenue, said Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents.

He added that foreign arrivals in Bangkok had fallen 30% below average due to the political turmoil.

''Most of the foreign visitors are tourists who expect to have a good time in Thailand. If the government cannot resolve the problems properly and quickly, we may see a weaker future for the business,'' he told AFP.

Last weekend anti-government protesters shut three key tourist airports for two days, stranding thousands of travellers. Mr Apichart said the closure of Phuket's airport alone caused losses of about 750 million baht. Rail services in southern Thailand have also been disrupted for a week.

Mr Kongkrit suggested yesterday that aggressive public-relations campaigns and international roadshows led by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) would be the key to recovery.

He argued that TAT and tourism operators should start organising events and activities to communicate that Thailand is still safe and that political turmoil takes place in limited areas, leaving foreign tourists free to travel as normal in most of the country.

In his personal view, Mr Kongkrit said the current political crisis had hurt the country's image more than the tsunami disaster of December 2004.

''Last time, everybody understood that the tsunami was a natural calamity. Both Thais and foreigners helped each other to survive and the picture showed the unity of people. But this current political unrest is different,'' he said.

''The current situation is damaging the country more than the coup in September 2006, raising Thailand's risk profile because of protestors extending their actions throughout the country, and directly affecting tourists by closing airports and shutting down rail services, as well as bloodshed with one fatality.''

Juthaporn Rerngronasa, the Tourism Authority of Thailand's deputy governor for international marketing, said the agency recognised that the turmoil had hurt Thailand's image and it was now working closely with its overseas offices to provide foreign tourists with information.

''The state of emergency is being imposed only in Bangkok and it is not as awful as they thought. Tourists can still come to Thailand and major airports are still open,'' she said.

Surapong Techaruvichit, a vice-president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), said the immediate way to shore up the Thai tourism image was to revoke the state of emergency, as this would improve overall sentiment.

''Marketing campaigns should focus on inviting travellers, tour agents and the foreign press to visit many tourist destinations,'' he said.

He added that tour operators in the long-haul market should ask their foreign partners to help promote the country.

''Thailand still has products like natural coasts, beaches and hotels. So, we can recover speedily. Many countries also have political conflict and most tourists understand this,'' Mr Surapong said.

The TAT said it was too early to estimate revenue losses and damage caused by the unrest.

''This time, the problem is totally different from the tsunami as nobody knows when and how the protest will end. If there is no violence, it's not difficult to boost Thai tourism's image and tourists will come back very soon,'' said Mrs Juthaporn.''But if there is something bad, or violence, the story will be different and it will be very hard for Thailand to revive the country's reputation in international markets.''

Mr Kongkrit said that if unrest continues, tourism revenue would be more than 10% below the 700-billion-baht target for 2008.

He forecast that 20% of reservations for the coming high season could be lost if the crisis carries on.

Currently, he said that between 5% and 10% of events in Phuket have been cancelled and he expected around 20% of Bangkok events to be called off if the conflict is not resolved soon.

''Our talks with hotel operators indicate no substantial cancellations yet, but they will continue to monitor the situation closely,'' he said.

''We expect the inopportunely timed political turmoil will, at the very least, cause a domino effect through to the first quarter of 2009, whether or not it ends soon.''