Thailand’s Tourism Minister: The impact of the bombing was only temporary

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BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s tourism statistics can be astounding at times. While after the Bangkok bombings in mid-August everyone warned of an anticipated sharp drop in visitor numbers due to countries re-enacting travel alerts and safety concerns mounting in the military-led country, the shock period was short-lived.

Indeed, accommodation bookings dropped around 10% immediately after the Erawan Shrine bombing in in Bangkok, but – astonishingly – that situation has since reversed with a 20% improvement in September and with reservations for October having climbed by 30% so far, Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said, commenting on fresh data released by the ministry last week.

In the first nine months of the year, Thailand attracted 22.1 million international visitors, up from 17.3 million visitors over the same period last year, an increase of more than 27%. Moreover, a record 28.8 million visitors are expected for the full year 2015 compared with 25.5 million in 2014. And, to the surprise of many, a lion’s share of 7 million visitors is expected to originate from China this year, up from 4.63 million last year, the tourism minister said, despite seven of the 20 victims killed in the bomb attack were Chinese and were likely targeted for their nationality.

“The impact of the bombing was only temporary,” Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said at last week’s press conference, adding that “tourists have confidence again after we arrested the perpetrators.”

Another interesting fact is that visitors from the Middle East posted the highest growth of all regions globally in the September statistics, with numbers up 31.42% to 66,369 visitors in the month compared to September 2014 after a year-on-year drop of 11% in August, the month of the bomb attack. Main Middle Eastern touristic source countries for Thailand in September were the UAE (+1.91%), Kuwait (+12.04%), Egypt (+37.26%) and Saudi Arabia (+67.90%). However, Thailand’s Department of Tourism does not give detailed numbers for other Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, which are summarised in “Others,” showing a growth of 30.14%.

This year, the race for the highest visitor numbers in Southeast Asia will be fought with Malaysia, Thailand’s main rival in the region which has been topping international arrival numbers over the past decade, albeit with just a narrow lead and despite the fact that the country is counting day visitors from Singapore multiple times over the year.

Malaysia is expecting 29.4 million tourist arrivals this year, despite volatile economic conditions, but fuelled by the weak ringgit.

For both countries, the continued interest of tourists remains to be highly vital as it helps to largely absorb the effects of their otherwise underachieving economies. In particular, Thailand’s GDP growth is forecast to reach just 2.7% this year, the lowest in the region, but would highly likely be flat or even in negative territory without proceedings from tourism. Domestic economists are thus warning that the country’s reliance on tourism for economic growth has become “disproportionate,” even more so as it obviously is at a quarter at the mercy of tourists from China, a situation that would call for diversification in the long-run.