Image can have more devastating impact than the reality. Thailand’s tourism industry is likely to suffer again from a bad image campaign following ongoing protests by the red shirts. Last week’s blockades of major shopping centers, big hotels, tourist areas such as Silom Road and finally the declaration of a State of Emergency on Wednesday for Bangkok by the Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva can only hurt Thailand’s image as a tourism paradise.
Because of 10,000 protesters in the streets, luxury malls and hotels around the shopping district have seen their revenue and occupancy plummet since the end of last week, at the height of the demonstrations. In total, more than 50,000 demonstrators ignored a warning to clear the area by 9pm and chose instead to sleep in the streets or in the doorways Saturday night. This kind of picture is regarded as highly disturbing by many Asian travelers, especially the ones from China and Japan. Both are crucial markets to Thailand tourism industry with respectively over 800,000 and over a million visitors. Many charter flights have already been cancelled from China for the Songkran holiday (Thai New Year).
Tourist players see with increasing worries the evolution of the situation and have urged all parties to stop using tourism activities as a tool to weight on the country’s political situation. The Minister of Tourism has already warned of a 10% drop in tourist arrivals, while Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand estimated that international arrivals at Suvarnabhumi Airport dropped by 15% to 29,000 per day since the protests of red-shirts started. However, in March total foreign arrivals were up b 17.5% compared to March 2009.
So far, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sticks to its original targets of attracting 15.5 million foreign visitors this year. According to the Bangkok Post, the agency is preparing to beef up “hard” sales such as tour packages with wholesalers, airlines and travel agents to lure more visitors from Europe, the Middle East and Japan with a total budget of THB 500 million (US$ 15.2 million), with over 60% of it being directed to Europe.
The tourism authority should however be aware that the recent protests hosted in Bangkok city centre could have a stronger impact than expected. In December 2008, following Bangkok airports’ occupation, an official from TAT told me that the impact of the airports’ blockade was likely to remain minimal as “not one single tourist had been under threat in contrary to the massacres following Mumbai terrorist attack”. It proved however wrong with the airport’s incident still being in the memory of many visitors. TAT has been posting daily updates on the situation on its website with efficiency and speed. However, they should now be accompanied by a recovery plan to be implemented once the protests die out. Thailand knows too well the power of the images…