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28 Apr, 2003

SARS Strikes, Leading To Worst Fall in Thai Tourism History

International visitor arrivals at Bangkok airport have plunged by 41% in first three-week period of April 2003 over the same period of 2002 due to the SARS crisis, the biggest fall ever in the history of Thai tourism.

Figures made available to this columnist last week showed that arrivals at Bangkok airport, the country’s major point of entry, were down from 407,917 in the period 1-21 April 2002 to 241,351 in the same period of this month.

The figure does not include arrivals at other points of entry like Phuket and the border-crossings with Malaysia. Even after those are in, it is likely that April 2003 will go down as recording the worst fall in Thai tourism history.

The last time Thai tourism took such a hit was in May 1992, the month of the attempted coup by former military strongman Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon. Total arrivals that month totalled 311,578, down 15% over arrivals of 368,053 in May 1991. After that crisis receded, arrivals rose immediately to 330,752 in June 1992.

However, the decline this time is likely to be prolonged, given the deep, almost hysterical fear that the crisis has instilled in the minds of the travelling public.

From a health perspective, it parallels the fears over AIDS that struck Thai tourism in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the country had to fight off fears of an out-of-control pandemic and the myth that AIDS could even be spread by swimming in the same pool as an infected person.

Now, SARS is taking a worse toll. The 1-21 April 2003 figures show unprecedented scales of decline in visitors to Thailand: Arrivals from China -58%; Singapore -72%; Japan -36%; Hong Kong -58%.

The only source-markets recording increased arrivals were: UK +1.9% to 26,869, Germany +0.5% to 16,761, Norway +37% to 2,860 and Bangladesh +0.23% to 1,717. Overall, arrivals from Europe seem to have been least affected, falling by 10%, as against a decline of -57% from East Asia.

Singapore is faring even worse. Hit by travel advisories from 19 countries, visitor arrivals to Singapore fell 62% in the fortnight of 1-14 April 2003. Hong Kong is in similar bad shape; there, travel media is referring to tourism as a ‘dying business’ that is unlikely to recover until the SARS paranoia subsides, regardless of what stimulus packages are offered to keep tour operators, hotels and airlines solvent.

Vietnam, one of the affected countries, also moved to put out ‘accurate information,’ noting that between April 08 and April 25, not a single new case of SARS had been reported in the country.

The Thai tourism industry is responding by moving ahead with communications strategies declaring Thailand to be virtually SARS-free, discounting prices and shifting marketing focus to domestic tourism.

Europe is beginning to regain some marketing attention even though summer is not a period when Europeans generally travel to Southeast Asia.

Thai travel operators are to use their presence at the May 1-4 Youth and Ecotravel Mart at the Queen Sirikit convention centre to offer a range of discounted packages designed to entice people to do at least some travelling in what’s left of the summer school holiday period.

Last week, at a press conference in Bangkok, the International Air Transport Association appealed to potential travellers to keep their travel confidence high. IATA executives called for the situation to be put into perspective, noting that 200 million people world-wide had travelled by air in the last two months, out of whom there had been a minute three cases of SARS transmission inflight.

“SARS is spread by people, not airlines,” said IATA’s regional spokesman Tony Concil. The airline industry group is also looking for help from governments via cost-relief measures that include reduction of landing charges at airports, on the grounds that it is just as entitled to government relief as the tourism industry.

However, the bigger issue is ensuring that air-travellers do not land up facing different health-check rules at different airports. Efforts to set up a standardised system of checks are being coordinated with the World Health Organization but neither IATA nor WHO officials gave any idea when these standardised rules will be promulgated.

Financially-hit airlines are moving to save costs across the board, but are facing added costs from another direction; it was suggested at an hastily-organised IATA conference in Bangkok that even headrests, blankets and pillows may have to be changed inside the aircrafts during transit stops.

Clearly, the regional travel industry is facing its worst crisis ever, largely due to the multiplicity of rules and regulations that are worsening the hassle-factor involved in travelling.

Between terrorism-related concerns like security checks, travel advisories and visa restrictions, and now health-related fears plus insurance difficulties, general economic uncertainty and fears of job-security, the travel & tourism industry is looking at months of bleak days as travellers postpone or defer their plans and wait for the situation to clear.

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