Over the past week, travel professionals have encountered serious challenges to the viability of the tourism industry in Thailand and Fiji, two countries far apart in distance but facing a common perceptual and actual threat as a result of domestic political events which impact on the reputation of each country as tourist destinations.
The two protagonists of Thailand’s political conflict have committed acts that have seriously undermined confidence in tourism. The yellow shirts’ occupation of Bangkok’s international airport in December 2008 caused major disruption to tourism in Thailand and Thailand’s reputation as a transit point for international travelers and airline operators.
The Thai tourism industry was making headway in recovering from this event when the current opposition, red shirts, managed to up the political ante by storming the venue of the ASEAN heads of government conference this month in Pattaya which resulted in the rapid evacuation of 15 heads of state from most of Thailand’s major tourism source markets. Some of those heads of state never made it Thailand. The aircraft carrying Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd being forced to turn back to Australia while en route to Pattaya. If political activists want to guarantee that a country attracts negative travel advisories which will deter tourism, then disrupting a meeting of heads of state from your country’s main source markets will certainly do the trick. The red shirts’ actions were designed to undermine the authority of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva but if this was the aim it has been a pyrrhic victory that has undermined Thailand’s national reputation.
Tourism in Thailand represents 6 percent of the nation’s GDP and the multiplier effect of tourism creates millions of jobs in Thailand, jobs that are now under threat. Although it appears that worst of the current round of political violence is over in Thailand and even the worst of the riots in Bangkok had relatively little impact on tourists in the country, perceptually, Thailand has sustained serious damage as a tourism destination.
The Thai Tourism Authority (TAT) to its credit has been quick to respond the developments, but it will take a great deal more than soothing words from TAT officials to bring the tourists back in a hurry. One of a range of strategic approaches is to bring media and tourism industry leaders from key source markets to see for themselves (as they did following the December 2004 tsunami) that Thailand is indeed a safe and tourist friendly destination. Indulging in spin won’t cut it for Thailand’s tourism industry right now.
The situation is Fiji is vastly different but has the potential to be equally threatening for tourism. Fiji’s “interim” prime minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, was clearly upset that the Fijian Supreme Court declared his regime unconstitutional a week ago. So like any military ruler in a similar situation, he abolished the constitution and dismissed the judiciary. The Fijian military also took over the Central Reserve Bank, censored the local media and expelled all foreign journalists who have deigned to question these actions. Unlike Thailand, there have been no riots in Fijian streets, demonstrations at airports or meetings disrupted. Tourists are not in any apparent danger and, in fact, with Fijian hotels and resorts offering a wide range of deals, thousands of Australian and New Zealand tourists are taking advantage of Fiji’s travel bargains.
However, this may change. The Australian and New Zealand governments have expressed their intense opposition to political developments in Fiji and if there is one area in which Fiji is distinctly vulnerable to political pressure then tourism ranks number one. Tourism represents over 30 percent of Fiji’s GDP and is undeniably the largest employer. Almost half of Fiji’s inbound tourism comes from Australia and New Zealand. A government campaign of criticism directed at Fiji and supported by a media in both Australia and New Zealand which have a penchant for creating a crisis out of very little could lead to a very negative perception of Fiji. Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith recently stated on ABC radio that he has no desire to negatively impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Fijians but he would do all possible to pressure the current Fijian government to commit to a rapid return to parliamentary democracy.
During the abortive Speight coup attempt of 2000, the Australian government actually raised the security alert level of Australia’s travel advisory and did so again when Bainimarama staged his coup in December 2006. The Fijian tourism industry and its leadership have been at pains to make a distinction between Fiji’s internal political machinations and the positive overall image of destination Fiji. However, a campaign of political odium directed at Fiji could potentially result in travelers choosing a less “controversial” destination and the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia offer many alternatives.
The Fijian tourism industry has faced a range of similar dilemmas since the first major military coup in 1987. The Fijian tourism industry has proven itself to be highly resilient in response to political events that have caused perceptual damage to Fiji. In the wake of past Fiji’s tourism leadership has employed familiarization trips of media and travel industry leaders with considerable effect although for Fiji this is an expensive exercise.
It is to be hoped that tourism is not employed in the arsenal of political weaponry used against the Fijian regime by Australia, New Zealand and its allies but it may be hard for these governments to resist the temptation.
Currently, tourism worldwide is affected by the global economic slowdown that is developing into a global tourism crisis. The last thing any tourist destination needs, especially in countries with a high level of economic reliance on tourism on tourism, is a political issue that compromises its competitiveness. Thailand and Fiji join a long list of countries that have been perceptually damaged by internal political upheavals.