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1 Nov, 2004

Thais Rue Image Fallout of South Thailand Conflict

The Thai travel and tourism industry has expressed shock and dismay at the deteriorating situation in south Thailand, with the Thai Hotels Association (THA) fearing that it is spiralling out of control and may get worse before it gets better.

THA President Chanin Donavanik and Association of Thai Travel Agents President Suparerk Soorangura both agreed last week that the TV images of the conflict had hurt the positive image of Thailand and tarnished its official tourism marketing slogan, “Happiness on Earth.”

At the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Thai Airways International, officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said they could not believe the images they had seen on TV.

“If Thaksin wants to run this country like a CEO, he should have learnt how to manage this crisis from the way the Citibank CEOs behaved when caught with their pants down in Japan. A little humility and compassion would have gone a long way,” said one THAI executive.

The industry is now on tenderhooks, adopting a wait and see attitude in the wake of threats of more attacks from the PULO separatist group. There is general agreement that that would be the worst thing that could happen

Asked if he thought things might spill out of control, Mr. Chanin replied, “They are already out of control. This government does not listen to anyone. It just does what it wants.”

Asked if he thought things might get worse before they get better, he said, “Unfortunately, yes. Some serious damage control is necessary.”

Mr. Suparerk said he had been in China when the situation exploded. “This is not good for us,” he said.

All the interviewed executives at THAI, TAT, THA and ATTA said there was no immediate business fallout.

The TAT said that initial reports from its foreign offices indicated plenty of coverage everywhere but little else in terms of phone calls of concern or diversion of business. THAI’s space control unit reported ‘nothing significant’ in terms of changes in booking patterns.

However, Mr. Chanin felt Haad Yai would definitely be affected, especially in view of the Oct 29 announcement by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry advising Malaysians to avoid travelling to southern Thailand until the security situation has improved.

The situation comes at a dicey time for the industry. This is the start of the traditional winter high season, which runs through March 2005 and generates the bulk of the visitor arrivals that will be instrumental in meeting the official projections of 11.2 million arrivals for this calendar year.

In two weeks, the long holiday that follows the end of Ramadan will see huge numbers of high-yield outbound travellers from the Middle East. The Gulf region particularly is a late booking market where decisions are being made now about where to go.

Arab visitors have become increasingly sensitive to the ‘sense of welcome’ felt by Muslims in the wake of the war-on-terror hysteria, and choosing their holiday destinations accordingly, with Malaysia being the top-draw. Competition is also rising for the lucrative medical market with local hospitals seeing a surge in patients from the Middle East.

Images of the Thai Muslim detainees being beaten and kicked by Thai troops were widely broadcast in the Middle East and Islamic countries, and the PM’s initial claims about the deaths perhaps being the result of the Ramadan fast drew further condemnation and contempt.

An editorial in the Saudi newspaper Arab News scoffed at the Prime Minister’s remarks. It said, “A few years ago Thailand sought, and was granted, associate member status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The repressive policy adopted since then is in clear contradiction of Thailand’s moral and political obligations.”

That was a clear warning that Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai’s bid to become UN Secretary General will go nowhere without the support of the 56-member OIC countries.

In mid-November, the World Travel Market will also be held in London where questions about the situation are bound to emerge, putting Thailand in the same defensive position that Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal have faced for several years over their internal disturbances.

Although the south Thailand situation has been ongoing since January 4, media coverage has been dwarfed by bigger stories like Iraq and the US elections, except when the situation flares like at Tak Bai and the attack on the Krue Sae mosque. Hence, tourism has been largely unaffected.

However, the latest intensity of the conflict has brought it further under the microscope as being more than just an isolated, ad hoc problem, which means that future incidents are unlikely to be treated as a mere passing phenomenon.

The upcoming national elections are likely to further raise political tensions. With Thailand aiming to become the Tourism Capital of Asia and attract 20 million arrivals by 2008, all are waiting to see what happens next, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

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