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12 May, 2003

SARS Scare Dries Up Business for Thais at Arabian Travel Market

Seriously tainted by the erroneous perception of coming from a SARS-affected country, Thai hotels and tour operators found themselves in the highly unusual position of twiddling their thumbs at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) last week.

The lack of buyers was made worse by a poorly-managed communications counter-campaign that saw Thailand being clearly eclipsed by Malaysia in the efforts to dispel the widespread notion that all of Asia is affected by SARS.

Moreover, the theory of ASEAN solidarity took another hit as Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian tourism authorities all did their separate things to counteract the SARS image. This, inspite of the recent ASEAN summit on SARS and dozens of ASEAN tourism meetings that are held regularly to forge a joint front when dealing with tourism crises.

Barring a sudden improvement in the situation that removes the daily barrage of SARS-in-Asia headlines from the front-pages of Gulf newspapers, Thailand is facing the prospect of dismal visitor arrivals from the Middle East during the upcoming low season.

A slowdown in the high-spending, long-staying Middle East visitors will worsen the slump expected as a result of falling arrivals from China and Hong Kong.

Thai sellers began returning to Bangkok in a foul mood, a complete contrast to the ‘good old days’ when gleeful Thai delegates rejoiced at manning a bustling booth packed with buyers, watched glumly by envious delegates at other lightly attended ASEAN booths.

Malaysia, too, has been hit by the SARS image but was much faster off the mark in addressing it. The country shares a common heritage with the Middle East and has done heavy marketing over the last few years to convert that into visitor arrivals.

On the very first day of the show opening, when more than 400 journalists attended, Tourism Malaysia Director General Abdulla Jonid distributed a statement clarifying the situation. The statement, five bullet-points on a single page, was slotted into the pigeon-holes of all the journalists and distributed to all buyers who came to the Malaysian booth.

Cleverly, the statement was signed not by Tourism Malaysia but by the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia whose representatives went along to man a desk in the Malaysian pavilion. Getting an early foot in the door produced results, and the country scored plenty of column inches in the local newspapers.

The Indonesian Press conference was held on the first day but did not score in terms of content; the Indonesians are not the best of communicators but they did realise the importance of getting in early. The tried to address too many issues at once, ran over time and bored the press with long statements.

Thailand’s first attempt to reach the media was not until the end of the second day, by when the ATM was two-thirds over. Organised by THAI Airways, the Press conference was attached to the Thai Night cocktail party which was a double-mistake; people had come to drink, not listen to more statements, and it was so late in the evening that there was no chance of it making any of the day’s editorial deadlines.

As a result, only two journalists showed up. The room was filled up by another audience: THAI’s general sales agents in the Gulf countries.

In terms of content, too, the ‘press conference’ was an embarrassment. Thai Airways President Kanok Abhiradee went into superfluously copious detail about the measures being taken by the airline to cope with SARS, right down to the in-flight cleaning of lavatories including all knobs, door-latches and wash-basins “as often as possible.”

Commented one of the GSA representatives later: “Well, that was interesting, but let’s see how they implement it.”

Realising that no media coverage would come of it, the TAT’s Dubai-based marketing consultant Adnan Abou Hijab made a last-ditch effort, convincing the TAT officials to take advantage of the cancellation of another Press conference on the last day of the ATM to take up the slot with a TAT-organised media event.

That was held at 10.30 am on the last day and was backed up by handouts in Arabic, the ASEAN SARS summit statement as well as a repeat screening of a video designed to put the whole problem into a better perspective.

It produced a higher turnout of about 20 journalists but virtually no impact in terms of editorial output. The show was all but over, there were no more conference dailies and by then, the mainstream consumer media had other more important things to write about.

Admitted one TAT official privately later, “Our head office people neither understood the scale of the image problem, nor did they take the show seriously enough.”

The Thai private sector was livid. Delegates felt a sense of complacency had set in about Thailand’s past tourism success and its ability to ride out any problem.

Commented one later, while ruefully watching the much-better attended Malaysian booth across the aisle, “This was the first major international travel show after the Iraq war. They should have realised the significance of the problem in relation to one of our most important high-yield markets.”

Asked what went wrong, Mr Abou Hijab just shook his head. “I’ll have to make some phone calls to my media friends and see what I can get published.”

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