After a relative period of stability, the last four years have seen Thailand dragged back into political turmoil. But there is another phenomenon which should worry the travel trade. Tourism is increasingly used as a tool to express political differences.
It started in the summer of 2008 when the group of “Yellow Shirts” showed their opposition to the government by blocking access to airports in the southern part of the country. Passengers departing from Phuket, Hat Yai, and Krabi had to scale fences and walls to enter the airport, as access roads were restricted. It was obviously a rehearsal for the “Yellow Shirts” (a Pro-Monarchy group) who finally managed to shut down both Bangkok international airports at Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang for ten days. The blockade deeply damaged the reputation of the Kingdom, as neither the police nor the army intervened to end up the occupation.
Then this year came the Red Shirts. In April, they moved their protest site to the Rachaprasong area, right in the heart of the capital. Any tourist coming to Bangkok knows Rachaprasong, which has the highest concentration of luxury hotels and luxury shopping centers. The Four Seasons Hotel, Novotel, Intercontinental, Holiday Inn, Grand Hyatt, and Hard Rock Café are just a few of the well-known tourism brands located in the area.
Red Shirts wanted then to move into Silom Road by late April, another famous tourist area with its night market, bars, and entertainment venues. They did not succeed, however, as they faced the resilience of Silom workers and then the presence of the army.
The latest casualty on a tourism object since has been the Dusit Thani Hotel targeted by three grenades on Sunday night. “As long as I have a guest, I will stay open,” declared Dusit International CEO Chanin Donavanik last Thursday. The unfortunate events of Sunday forced the hotel to close down.
“It is a very worrying situation,” told Murray Bailey, publisher of Travel Business Analyst in Hong Kong and a specialist of Asian tourism. “Of course, tourists are not physically attacked by protesters in Thailand. But the existence of tourism is threatened by taking over symbols such as hotels or airports,” he added.
By destroying or taking over tourism objects or infrastructure, political factions know that they will then deliberately generate worldwide coverage. Even if in the longer term, Thailand’s tourism image is likely to suffer badly. It remains then a short-sighted vision, as it is estimated that over 3.5 million persons in Thailand live from tourism. “It means by the end of the day, that tourism in Thailand is not safe from the current events,” said Bailey.
Even domestic tourism now seems to be caught into Thai political games. As Northern and Northeast Thailand are the stronghold of the Red Shirts movement and of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the latest trend among some of the Bangkok elite is to boycott Chiang Mai and the northern part of the country. At this game, everyone in Thailand is certain to lose.