Political turmoil might shake Thai tourism for long


Flaring violence between the Thai military and protesting red shirts over the weekend will definitely impact on Thailand’s tourism. Violence translated into hundreds of wounded and some 15 dead. Despite the promise from Prime Minister Abhisit to call for new elections by next October, political gridlock will continue as the Thai society seems not to be able to get over its deep divisions. Beyond a war of “colors,” Thailand offers an image of a country where Pro-Thaksin looks to regularly fight againts Bangkok’s elites – shaped for now by a coalition of traditional parties, the military, and high bourgeoisie. This is the fight of elites versus a rural poor population from the north and northeast and feeling left out from the country’s development, leaving the country in a gridlock.

Tourism is already affected by the current crisis. Hotels in the city center –around Rachaprasong and Silom areas – tightened up security and were hardly accessible by car. With shopping malls closed for a week (Siam Paragon claims to have lost over US$10 million), the cancellation of the Songkhran festivities on the famed Khao San Road in Bangkok (another financial blow of US$15 million for local business), and Silom Road being invaded by protesters for a couple of days, tourism professionals will have now to fight against the idea that the kingdom carries a potential risk for travelers wishing to come to the capital. Last week, the United Arab Emirates, Latvia, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and China issued travel warnings for their citizens wishing to travel to Thailand.

Of course, it must again be underlined that foreign tourists are not the target of the protest. But many people will not take the risk to come “in case something would happen”. The syndrome of Bangkok airports’ closure is still lasting in memories. The reaction of Thai Airways is very symptomatic of the tourists’ perception. According to Pruet Boobphakan, TG executive president of marketing and sales to the Bangkok Post, the airline is shifting its marketing strategy abroad. Instead of promoting Bangkok, the airline started to promote Phuket and Krabi. Thai indicates that its load factor is down to 70 percent, five points less than usual. Competitor Thai AirAsia indicated a load factor of 65 percent.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Tourism, tourist arrivals at Suvarnabhumi airport have dropped over the last week on average by 7 to 10 percent, per day. Tourism and Sports Minister Chumpol Silpa-archa indicated that total arrivals had fallen by 8.9 percent during the last two weeks of March following the red shirts’ mass demonstration, compared to an increase of almost 30 percent between March 1 and 11. Tourism will most probably have to further live with sporadic demonstrations or violence. The kingdom has been living in turbulent times for at least three years now, and as long as divisions will not be healed within the Thai society, there is little hope for a dramatic turnaround in a foreseeable future. Tourists will have to live with this idea.