Mekong countries look to cut dependence in air transport from Thailand


Will Thailand’s status as the natural gateway to the Greater Mekong Sub-Region be soon passé? The question would have raised scepticism or even sarcasm a decade ago. But today, the Kingdom’s lasting political instability might indeed endanger the role it has played to build up the Mekong community. At the Mekong Tourism Forum, officials felt rather uncomfortable to tell their opinion. But by carefully analyzing answers provided by NTOs of each country, the conclusion is simple: everyone tends to recommend alternative gateways to come into the area, despite the attempt by Mrs. Runjuang Tongkrut, director for the policy planning division at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, to reassure the tourism community. “No tourists have been targeted so far by the various political incidents. The protests [have] take[n] place in a small area of Bangkok, and the rest of the Kingdom – including our airports – is safe for travel,” she indicated.

But unfortunately, most visitors would rather avoid a country where instability turns chronic. Such a point of view is comprehensible. Especially as the spectrum of the closure of both Bangkok’s airports in December 2008 continues to haunt both consumers and officials. “We rely a lot on Thailand for incoming overseas travelers. We advise our potential travelers to look at all options such as Malaysia and Singapore,” said Mr. Htay Aung, director, general ministry of hotels and tourism in Myanmar. Laos and Myanmar are indeed the most dependant countries in terms of air access from Thailand. In Cambodia, alternatives are easier as many airlines from ASEAN, and also China and Korea, now operate on a daily basis to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports.

Vietnam is probably the least dependent in the region on Thailand’s troubles. For Mr. Tran Phong Binh, head of the overseas market division at the Vietnam National Tourism Administration, Vietnam is lucky to have “a strong airline with a comprehensive international network.” Yunnan or Guangxi are also less dependant on Bangkok as a main gateway for air travelers, as good connections exist via Vietnam or China’s major airports.

Thailand’s lack of fortune could even be perceived as the necessary incentive for governments in Indochina to upgrade their airlines or to become more flexible in according traffic rights. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have no intercontinental flights for the time: Bangkok’s situation might pressure their respective government to allow their national airline to venture overseas.

The step could help to diminish the risk of relying too much on Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport as a transfer point. In fact, even transiting via Thailand is turning more complicated due to travel warnings issued by 47 countries – including Vietnam! “Travel warning plays a devastating role for us. For example, as a Laos-based company, we lose many groups, as tour operators from foreign countries do not want to take the risk to financially support themselves [or] tourists in the case of a problem occurring. They [would] rather prefer to cancel,” said Vianney Catteau from Green Discovery, an agency based in Vientiane.

The evolution of Thailand tourist arrivals in 2010 will also certainly influence total arrivals to the Greater Mekong sub-region. “We now expect to receive 14 million tourists, roughly the same number than in 2009. We will then rely more on domestic tourism, which could generate this year some 97 million trips,” said Mrs. Tongkrut. Thailand will certainly lose some market share to other countries as a gateway to the GMS. For now – at least in the short term – Thailand will continue to hold its position as a Mekong regional hub. “This is still the best connected airport in the region with the most extensive network to Europe and excellent connections to Australia or the USA,” said Luzi Matzig from Asian Trails. But the competition will turn increasingly ferocious.