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25 Sep, 2006

Thai “Orchid Revolution” Ousts Thaksin

While military coups tend to create image problems for most countries, exactly the opposite is expected to happen for Thailand where last week’s “Orchid Revolution” has generated huge amounts of positive publicity.

After the dust settled on the first few hours of regime change, following the knee-jerk travel advisories and perfunctory Western concern about the future of Thai democracy, media coverage turned overwhelmingly positive as images of tourists photographing the tanks and people handing flowers to the troops circulated worldwide.

This week at the Thailand Travel Mart, hundreds of influential tour-operator buyers will get to see the situation for themselves and become the world’s first travellers to fly into Bangkok’s old airport while flying out of the new Suvarnabhumi airport — the Thaksin administration’s biggest contribution to Thai travel & tourism.

The Thai tourism industry often frets about its image in global eyes but the complete absence of violence generated considerable global ‘shock and awe’ at another formidable feat pulled off by “Amazing Thailand.”

In the spirit of giving credit where it is due, the Thaksin administration did much for Thai tourism industry in pursuit of attaining its target of 20 million visitors by 2008, which would have been the last year of what the ousted PM had expected would be two 4-year terms of office.

But his desire to step on the gas did not take account of any such factors as speed limits, the socio-environmental consequences or the strain on infrastructure.

Nor did it account for the impact of external factors which began hitting travel & tourism almost literally from Mr Thaksin’s first year in office, e.g., the 11 September attacks in the US in 2001, SARS, bird flu and the tsunami.

Visitor arrivals fell 7.36% to just a shade over 10 million in 2003, the SARS year, and again by 1.15% to 11,516,936 in 2005, when the industry suffered the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. It was the first time in history that visitor arrivals fell by such percentages in such a short span of time.

This year’s target of 13.8 million arrivals is expected to be attained assuming, to quote TAT officials, “there are no further internal or external upheavals.”

Realising the vote-getting power of the Thai tourism industry, which is estimated to employ more than two million people in direct and indirect jobs, Mr Thaksin had made a strong effort right from the beginning of his term to get the industry in full-speed-ahead mode.

One of his first moves was to call an industry-wide meeting in Chiang Mai to discuss ways to boost tourism. From there emerged the contours of policies designed to position Thailand as a ‘hub’ of such sectors as fashion, film-making, shopping, transportation, health and wellness, conventions, etc, all of which attained the strategic objective of generating growth.

There was also no shortage of money; each crisis was followed by huge amounts of emergency marketing funds. Money was also pumped into the OTOP scheme which, although controversial, did go a long way towards helping rural dwellers generate alternate forms of income from tourist purchases and exports.

Some of the key developments under Mr Thaksin included the formation of the first Thai Ministry of Tourism and the Thai Convention and Exhibition Bureau, both in 2002, expedited liberalisation of Thai aviation and the formation (with Shin Corporation) of Thai AirAsia, the country’s first low-cost airline, in November 2003.

At the same time, there were also hair-brained schemes like the plan to develop Koh Chang into yet another megaresort island, even while other beach resorts like Samui are under tremendous pressure to deal with the challenges of growth.

History may well record that the Thaksin administration attempted to do too much too quickly, and placed too much emphasis on ‘hardware’ without commensurate efforts to meet the underlying software requirements.

For example, in spite of the significant contribution of travel and transportation to the country’s economy, it still lacks world-class educational and training facilities in either sector.

Environmental and zoning laws have remained poorly enforced, a fact that became apparent in the aftermath of the tsunami. And the downsides of liberal visa regulations emerged with the publicity surrounding the arrest of a suspected paedophile earlier this year.

A changing of the guard is also under way at the Tourism Authority of Thailand where the appointment of a new Governor may generate some unexpected surprises, depending on who takes over the tourism portfolio in a new Cabinet.

The key issue now is the opening of the new Suvarnabhumi airport as the industry waits the night of September 27-28 with bated breath. If the shift from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi goes off as smoothly as last week’s regime change, the kingdom will truly have lived up to its most memorable marketing slogan, Amazing Thailand.

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