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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Thai tourism: Another victim of the bomb?

The remarkable resilience of the hospitality industry is facing its sternest challenge yet.


 When Thailand's new deputy prime minister overseeing economic and foreign affairs, Somkid Jatusripitak, delivered his first major public policy address last week, the news was far from good.

Investigations had so far proven unsuccessful in finding who was behind the bombing at the Erawan Shrine, and the short-term economic consequences continue to be felt. More than 20 nations and territories have issued travel advisories or warnings for their citizens traveling to Thailand. Hotels, as well as tour operators, are reporting cancellations.

And now, the latest economic data has Thai exports shrinking for the seventh consecutive month. Overall exports from Thailand from January to July are now down 4.66 per cent. In June, the country had the worst monthly contraction since 2011 - a 7.87 per cent year-on-year decline.

Yet in this nation famously known for looking on the bright side, Somkid has declared that the economy is merely weak, not in crisis. This is to be no repeat of the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Five years since violent street protests and the worst floods to hit Thailand in 50 years brought about dire predictions for the nation's tourism industry, the purveyors of economic doom are back. Pessimistic views compete with images from the nation's longstanding "Amazing Thailand" tourism promotions.

Worries continue about the impact of the bombing on the all important inward bound travel market. Chinese travellers now make up about a quarter of all foreign tourists in Thailand annually, with the Erawan Shrine and the surrounding shopping district a popular destination. More than 4 million visitors from China travelled to Thailand in the first six months of this year alone, and those numbers were expected to continue to rise.

In the immediate aftermath of the bomb attack, equities related to tourism, transport and distribution, given Thailand's key role as a regional logistics hub, were particularly hard hit. The Stock Exchange of Thailand Index experienced its worst one-day decline in more than a year. The baht also has fallen to six-year lows to the US dollar.

Responsible for about 10 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product, the nation's vital tourism industry had been one of the few economic bright spots for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. And yet amid the gloom and the near-term chill on Thailand's markets, one lesson from past crises in this Land of Smiles is that the Thai tourism sector will survive and once again thrive.

CEO Kevin Beauvais of GLOW Hotels & Resorts, with operations in Thailand and Malaysia and other properties under development in China, Vietnam and the Maldives, underscores this view.

"Thailand is amazingly resilient and still offers some of the best tourism values in the world," says Beauvais, who has lived and worked in Thailand through floods, political turmoil and a succession of governments. "In spite of Monday's [August 17] incident, Bangkok remains one of the safest cities in the world," he adds. "People will always come back for the sun, sand [and] sea."


 Bouncing back

Tourism numbers in recent years support this view. Bangkok has continued along with London to take one of the top two spots in the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index for the last five years. That index ranks 132 destination cities around the world in terms of total international overnight visitor arrivals and cross-border spending.

Bangkok's draw remained despite some of the worst street violence in Thailand's recent history.

In May 2010, large parts of Bangkok were paralysed by weeks of anti-government demonstrations. Rioting and violence spread, leading to the declaration of Bangkok's first night curfew in 15 years.

Thailand's largest shopping complex was set ablaze. A television station and the stock exchange, among others, were attacked. More than 70 people lost their lives.

Then, as now, dire warnings followed about the nation's tourism industry. Today, a gleaming new and expanded CentralWorld shopping mall complex has emerged from the embers as one of Bangkok's most visited destinations.

And, just a few months later, in October and November 2010, Thailand was hit by one of the worst calamities in five decades. Floods killed hundreds, inundated homes and factories, closed airports and roads, and stranded tourists and residents across the country. Dire predictions about the tourism sector also ensued as hotel occupancy rates plummeted and expenditures by visitors declined.

Few international visitors also may now remember that four years earlier, on December 31, 2006, during the New Year's countdown, bombings in Bangkok left at least 40 dead or injured.

So, what lies ahead for Thailand's enduring travel and tourism industry?

Dan Fraser, co-founder of Smiling Albino, a leading luxury adventure tour company in the Kingdom, says: "Bookings will take a very short-term hit, like the markets, but will bounce back. Thailand is resilient and has a history of bouncing back… so we don't expect anything more than a temporary blip."

Short of a sustained campaign of bombings, which would wreak havoc with any nation's tourism sector, Thailand will more than recover from the Erawan Shrine tragedy. That event is unlikely to have a long-lasting impact on the nation's still lacklustre economy or investor sentiment, already weighed down by Thailand's continued political uncertainties.

Other major travel destinations have withstood much worse attacks - including the resort island of Bali, the focus of bombings in 2002 and 2005, and New York in September 2001. The Erawan Shrine has reopened, vigilance is up, and the nearby Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok hotel, which experienced some minor damage in the Monday explosion, is in full operation at this time, says Hyatt area vice president and hotel general manager Gordon Fuller.

With exports continuing to contract, falling consumer sentiment, a drought-stricken agricultural sector and a persistent political divide, the resilience of the nation's tourism sector should be among the least of the worries facing Thailand's newly installed economic team.

Indeed, that so much focus has been placed on the Erawan Shrine bombing's possible impact on tourism is itself a testament to the sector's ability to bounce back. It has done so in the past, and will do so again.


Source: The Nation
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