Western tourists soak up the sun on Kata Beach, Phuket. Pic: AP.

Leading Thai-American businessman says embassies are off-base with travel advisories on the political crisis, writes Asia Sentinel’s A. Lin Neumann

One of the most prominent American business executives in Thailand has complained to foreign governments that “unnecessarily severe travel advisories are… having a major impact on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country.”

William Heinecke, the chairman and chief executive officer of Minor International, a leading tourism operator in Thailand, made the remarks in an “Open Letter to Foreign Ambassadors” published Friday in the Bangkok Post.

The letter from one of the best known foreign businessmen in Thailand is a further indication of the deepening woes for the tourist industry as a result of the ongoing protests aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

It is hard, however, to blame foreign travel advisories for Thailand’s problems. Thailand looks shakier by the day. With shootings, grenade attacks, and rising anger a daily reality in parts of Bangkok, it is easy to understand why tourists in Europe or Hong Kong might think twice before heading to Thailand, even if the protests have had little impact on beaches and bars.

On Friday, a caravan of some 700 trucks and tractors headed for Bangkok’s main airport to protest about overdue government payments from a controversial rice-subsidy scheme. Amid fears that they would block the airport, they called off the action at the last minute when one of their leaders said the government had promised to pay them next week.

Heinecke, who is a naturalized Thai citizen, said he was appealing to embassies to lay off the warnings on behalf of his “40,000 employees and those whose livelihoods depend directly and indirectly on tourism — one of the vital drivers of the Thai economy.” He argued that outside “certain parts of Bangkok,” the “country is safe to visit.”

He said “travel warnings and restrictions issued by some foreign governments incorrectly dispel this fact.”

Heinecke’s company controls such well-known brands as Four Seasons, St. Regis and JW Marriot in Thailand, along with numerous restaurant and clothing brands. He said the country has the “best tourism infrastructure in Asia which provides livelihoods for millions throughout the country.”

The issuance of travel warnings by embassies is often criticized in many countries because it can dent tourism revenues and create a feeling of worsening crisis in times of turmoil. In the case of Thailand, however, the warnings seem reasonable in a situation fraught with deep uncertainties over a potential coup or possible widespread violence from an impasse provoked by the opposition.

“These unnecessarily severe travel advisories are now having a major impact on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country,” Heinecke said. He cited government figures showing that tourism arrivals in January dropped by one million from the same time last year. He said the Tourism Council of Thailand “quantified the revenue loss as 22.5 billion baht.”

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