28 weeks later: Thailand tourism down, but not out
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28 weeks later: Thailand tourism down, but not out

By Guest Contributor

Earlier this month Thailand’s Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said that about 25 million foreign visitors are expected to visit the country this year, down from 26.7 million in 2013. This seems optimistic, considering that Thailand has suffered a tumultuous year marred by months of violent political protests and a military coup on May 22.

Official figures show that 19,739,600 people visited Thailand in the first 10 months of the year, 8.72 per cent below the  21,626,233 that visited during the same period last year. Tourist arrivals are likely to gain momentum over the next two months as the ‘high season’ gets under way, so Mr. Kobkarn’s predictions may not be so far off the mark.

It has been a consistently bad year for tourism in Thailand. The first nine months of the year all showed a drop in arrivals. June was far by the worst, with numbers falling 24.37 percent below 2013 levels in the immediate aftermath of the coup. October was the only month this year to show an improvement on last year, signalling that the industry has turned a corner, at least for now.

The dip in tourism numbers is a serious blow to Thailand’s ailing economy. The original target for 2014 was 28 million foreign visitors and 2 trillion baht in tourism-related income. Even if the industry recovers to 25 million visitors for the year, that still represents a loss of about 200 billion baht (US$6.1 billion) for the Thai economy.   

Even more worrying is the possibility that these figures may not truly reflect the problems faced by the tourism industry in Thailand. The figures publicised by Thai authorities, and usually carried by media, represent total international arrivals, including land-border arrivals from neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

Arrivals to Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where most international tourists arrive in the country, arguably paint a more accurate picture of the state of Thailand’s tourism industry. At the end of October, arrivals at Suvarnabhumi were down 15.61 percent compared to the same time last year, significantly more than the 8.72 percent in the overall figures.

While tourism in Thailand is showing clear signs of a rebound, the junta has a lot to do if it is to restore the country’s image as a safe and attractive destination. The gruesome murders of British tourists Hannah Withridge and David Miller on the southern island of Koh Tao in September made international headlines and raised serious concerns about tourist safety.

The botched investigation and some very questionable remarks by junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha regarding whether “good looking” tourists are safe wearing bikinis (which, to his credit, he apologised for) did not help the situation. Even the Thai authorities’ attempts at damage control – ID bracelets for tourists, seriously? – seemed ham-fisted.

Less of a problem seems to be the fact that the country remains under martial law and will remain under the control of the junta for the foreseeable future. While there were some for calls for the boycotting of Thailand as a tourist destination in June, they seem to have had little or no effect. The junta even attempted to spin this in its favour last month with its ’24 Hours Enjoy Thailand’ campaign promoting “safe travel” under martial law.

“We want the tourists to be confident that they can travel in Thailand both day and night with safety at all times,” Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Thawatchai Arunyik told Thai Rath newspaper.

A recent poll suggested that martial law and military rule is not a high priority for tourists. Most also responded that they felt safe in Thailand.

The pollsters surveyed 1,044 foreign visitors from Nov 7 to 9 and reported that 70% said martial law did not affect the decision to visit Thailand, while the remaining 30%  said it had been a factor they had considered before coming here.

However, 86.1% o respondents thought Thailand was a safe destination for tourists, while 2.4% considered it unsafe, and 11.5% were indecisive.

Taxis, not martial law, upset tourists”, Bangkok Post, November 30, 2014

Somehow, despite itself, the junta seems to have brought the tourism industry back on track. The fact that tourists are coming back so quickly is more of a testament to the amazing draw the country has for travellers than anything the current rulers managed to achieve in the past six months. In the end most tourists don’t care too much about who’s in charge, so long as they can enjoy Thailand’s beauty, culture and/or raucous nightlife in relative safety. If the junta can keep the streets free of political violence then 2015 could well be a bumper year for tourism, though a peaceful return to democracy wouldn’t hurt either.

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The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
Part 1: Economic stability comes at a cost under Thailand’s military junta
Part 2: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand
Part 3: An education fit for a zombie?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts