Not surprisingly, tourism numbers to Thailand are down and tourism-related losses are estimated at 60 to 70 billion Thai baht ($1.9 billion to $2.2 billion USD) following the recent Red Shirt protests that took place for two months this past spring in the capital Bangkok, and culminated with a violent ending on May 19.
I was incredibly saddened by those events, as Thailand and its people will always have a special place in my heart: Bangkok was my home base when I spent the better part of a year in Southeast Asia a decade ago, and I encountered nothing but kindness and warm hospitality then and on my return trips to the country since.
So I was excited to attend a luncheon yesterday with members from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to hear about how they plan to get people to return to the “Land of Smiles.”
“I am delighted to confirm to you that the troubles are behind us, that all is returning very quickly to normal, and that the [U.S.] State Department has lifted its travel advisory,” said Khun Srisuda Wanapinyosak, director of TAT New York. “It is my privilege to report to you that the state of Thailand is sound, safe and more glorious than ever before.”
We were reminded of this return to normalcy throughout the event, where we watched video clips of travelers who were in Thailand during the protests and immediately after, all noting that outside Bangkok there were no disruptions and those in the city stating that it feels completely safe. Naturally there also was footage of the country’s beautiful destinations, from the hill country in the north, to the incomparable beaches in the south.
“More than 680,000 Americans came to Thailand in 2008 and, despite the economic downturn, 2009 was not the catastrophe that many international destinations feared it would be,” said Wanapinyosak.
Still, international passengers arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport fell by an average of 20 percent over May 2009 and by 30 percent over May 2008, with the week of May 18, 2010 showing daily arrivals declined by an average of 12,000 to 14,000 over normal figures, according to a June 2 Travel Daily News article. On the plus side, air arrivals to the island of Phuket in the south were up more than 61 percent over 2009.
To make it easier to travel to Thailand, a member of Wanapinyosak’s New York team said the government is looking to reduce landing fees for planes and offering interest-free loans for small- and medium-sized tourism-related businesses that qualify. Lower hotel taxes are also under consideration. He also mentioned adding 30-day visa free stays for tourists from around the world, though that’s already available for visitors from the U.S. and many other countries.
Most in the audience though wanted to know what type of deals would be on offer to tourists who canceled or postponed their trips to Thailand. Unfortunately, “not much” was the ultimate answer. Instead, TAT members stressed the value and quality of experiences to be had in Thailand rather than special discounts, though we were directed to the site www.thailandsuperdeal.com, which actually is just another URL for the TAT Web site. When I clicked on the Packages & Promotions tab, however, all it said on the page was “There are no deals.”
Of course, those of us who know Thailand know that it always offers amazing value, whether you’re a backpacker or a luxury traveler. Those on the top end have the best chance of finding incredible bargains these days. The chic Metropolitan in Bangkok, a COMO hotel, is offering rooms for just $80 a night, a fraction of the regular cost, said an attendee at the luncheon who works with the brand.
In closing, the TAT team strongly encouraged us to come visit Thailand to see how great it still is and to help spread the word in order to bring people back to the country.
“Perhaps the most painful element of recent events was for us not just the specter of cancellations and postponements, but the interruption in what the people of Thailand love to do,” said Wanapinyosak. “That is to welcome visitors and emphasize that Thailand is the warm and welcoming place it has always been. It is part of our culture to greet those who come to Thailand with grace and with warmth, and it was hard for that culture to be placed temporarily on hold.”