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26 Jul, 2004

TAT Starts Marketing Push for Restive South Thailand

It has long been claimed that Northeast Thailand is the country’s most neglected tourism area. However, with that area now set to be revived as a stepping stone to the Greater Mekong Subregion countries, it is the situation in South Thailand that is attracting the most attention, especially in the wake of the recent unrest.

Next month, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is to spend 34 million baht on a five-day travel and cultural extravaganza to be held in Songkhla between 4-8 August to showcase its tourism attractions and underscore the region’s social, economic and cultural stability.

Prime Minister Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra is scheduled to chair the opening ceremony on 4 August in an event that is also designed to raise the profile of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) subregion.

This promotion is in fact long overdue. Figures made available by the TAT and the Airports Authority of Thailand last week indicated that Haad Yai is the most neglected of the country’s four international gateways, and arguably the most neglected of international destinations.

In fact, the figures show that Haad Yai has been in decline for the last decade as all attention was focussed on developing Phuket, Samui and the beach resorts, as well as North Thailand and the country’s links with the Mekong subregion.

According to Airports of Thailand PLC, international passenger movements at Haad Yai airport in 2003 totalled only 105,297, which is less than half of the 222,222 movements in 1990! They rose briefly through the 1990s to reach an all-time high of 237,997 movements in 1997 and have slumped ever since.

International freight traffic rose from 1,334 tonnes in 1990 to 4,222 tonnes in 1999 and has since slumped to 2,238 tonnes in 2003.

Domestic passenger movements at Haad Yai have followed a similar trajectory, rising from 361,040 movements in 1990 to 729,431 in 1996 and slumping since to 635,497 in 2003. Domestic freight traffic rose from 3,679 tonnes in 1990 to 13,292 tonnes in 1997 and slumped to 8,160 tonnes in 2003.

While some of that can be attributed to the economic and various other international, regional and local crises since 1997, it is contrasted by the large and steady increases in both passenger movements and freight traffic at Phuket.

According to AoT statistic, international passenger movements at Phuket airport rose from 461,146 in 1990 to 1.49 million in 2003, and international freight traffic from 2,938 tonnes to 12,338 tones in the same period.

Domestic passenger movements at Phuket rose from 1.34 million in 1990 to 2.10 million in 2003, and domestic freight from 3,400 tonnes to 10,866 tonnes in the same period.

According to the TAT’s latest statistical report, released at its recent marketing conference, Haad Yai received only 41,705 visitor arrivals by first point of entry in 2003 as against 924,078 arrivals in Phuket. Even U-tapao airport received 29,896 arrivals.

This slump in arrivals has been reflected in the Haad Yai hotel room count with no new investment being made in new rooms in four years. According to TAT statistics, hotel rooms in Haad Yai totalled 9,174 in 2000 and were unchanged all the way until 2003.

Meanwhile, room count in Phuket has risen from 19,574 in 2000 to 31,302 in 2003, and in Samui from 9,192 rooms to 10,913 rooms in the same period.

As a destination, Haad Yai is over-dependent on cross-border overland traffic from Malaysia and air traffic from Singapore. This makes it excessively vulnerable to the tourism impact of crises like bird flu, flash floods and SARS, with the latest unrest in South Thailand only exacerbating the situation.

Moreover, the deep south does not figure very prominently in overseas tourism promotion trips and, in a classic chicken-vs-egg scenario, does not attract a more diverse set of clientele and hence little new hotel investor interest.

The sorry state of arrivals into Haad Yai is all the more surprising given the fact that two of Thailand’s highly respected prime ministers of the last two decades, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Mr. Chuan Leekpai, were both from South Thailand, the former from Songkhla and the latter from Trang.

The unrest in the south has only brought these issues to a head, and the TAT is now focusing some serious resources and effort into promoting the region.

Next month’s promotional extravaganza is designed to stoke both domestic travel as well as intra-regional travel to and between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all part of the IMT-GT subregional growth triangle created to promote social, economic and cultural exchanges between the three countries.

This subregion boasts a unique confluence of Buddhist, Islamic, Malay and Chinese cultures which is reflected in the local cuisine, way of life, local performances, arts and cultural traditions, all of which will be on display during the event.

Visitors to the TAT event will be able to avail of a wide range of discounts for tour programmes and accommodations at destinations in Southern Thailand, northern Malaysia and Western Indonesia, the three neighbouring geographical regions that form the IMT-GT cluster.

Separate events will be organised for travel trade companies through the chambers of commerce and the Tourism Council of Thailand in order to facilitate business opportunities.

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