The political unrest which has plagued central Bangkok and other urban areas in Thailand over the past few weeks now presents the greatest challenge to the reputation of Thai tourism since the December 2004 tsunami. However, unlike the tsunami, a natural disaster, the Red Shirt demonstrations and the violent response from the Thai government and military is unpredictable and ongoing.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), to its credit has been very forthcoming on its website about trouble spots to avoid and providing emergency contacts for both travelers and intending travelers. However, tourists have been included among the injured. In central Bangkok, a small number of hotels have either been caught up in the crossfire or have been used as sniping posts for the army. The unpredictable and fluid nature of the security threat makes warnings unreliable. The growing number of governments from Thailand’s source market countries, which have issued strongly cautionary travel advisories coupled with heavy media coverage of the political unrest, has drowned out TAT’s attempt to lure tourists to Thailand.
Strategically, TAT’s attempt to aggressively market visitation to Thailand during the unrest is ill timed. It may be a smarter to shift the marketing focus on those areas in Thailand less affected by political violence and to market them as destinations in their own right. Promoting tourism to Phuket (which is a well-serviced gateway point) or Chiang Mai, rather than to Thailand as a whole, would be a wiser tactic.
Perceptually, the traveling public sees Thailand as dangerous but not Phuket. While TAT is indeed focusing a great deal of its marketing on those parts of the country less affected by political unrest, the major message being communicated is to offer a range of incentives to visit Thailand. Many travelers and travel industry professionals are far from certain whether Bangkok’s international airport is a secure entry and exit point and how safe the access is between the airport and central Thailand or to other parts of the country.
TAT would be well advised to work on a post-crisis marketing push – something it does extremely well. Investing massive resources on marketing the destination in the midst of the bad news period is wasteful, counter productive, and smacks of (understandable) desperation. Although it is unlikely to be TAT’s intention, the impression created by aggressive marketing during the political unrest creates an impression that TAT is more interested in tourists spending money in Thailand than they are about their safety.
Right now TAT would be better off working in damage control mode or focusing on non-Bangkok tourism. Once a resolution to the political unrest has been reached, that would be the right time for the sort of aggressive recovery marketing campaign that the Thai Tourism Authority does so well.
About David Beirman
The author is a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technlogy-Sydney and will be running a two-day workshop on business and destination recovery from security-related crises at the Tourism Security Conference in Kula Lumpur, June 14-17