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8 Sep, 2008

Thailand Counts Costs of Political Crisis

The Thai tourism industry began to survey the damage caused by the nearly two-week long political situation, amidst general agreement that the situation was not as bad as it could have been and will bounce back quickly once normalcy is returned.

Industry executives said that most of the damage had been done by usage of the words “state of emergency” which had quickly been picked up by the travel advisory issuance units of foreign embassies. However, there was also widespread praise for the military/police authorities for not over-reacting.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand reported that in the first six days alone, (26-31 August), the situation had cost the country an estimated 15,000 fewer visitors, down 1.18% over the same period of 2007, resulting in an economic loss of about 570 million baht.

Mr. Serirat Prasutanond, acting president of the Airports of Thailand (AOT), told the Thai News Agency that AOT lost 6.9 million baht in income due to the blockade of Phuket and Hat Yai International airports. This was the result of lost landing and airport user charges fees which airlines have to pay for the ground handling of each flight.

The TAT issued a very clear status report to all its international offices which in turn was forwarded to thousands of travel agents and media. The Thailand Incentive & Convention Association began surveying its members last week to weigh the cost on business travel and meetings.

On the positive side, the nearly 2,900 delegates attending ITU Telecom Asia 2008 put out the word that they had enjoyed “Business as usual”.

Said an ITU announcement, “While news reports of the unfolding scenario kept some foreign participants from attending, which resulted in lower numbers of visitors than expected, the IMPACT Centre as well as most of Bangkok city appeared unaffected. The Forum Halls were full to overflowing and the trade show bustled with activity.”

Media coverage varied. While the International Herald Tribune headlined the brief outbreak of violence thus, “Thai leader declares emergency as streets turn deadly”, other media like Reuters talked to the backpackers in Khao Sarn road and generated stories headlined, “Crisis? What crisis, ask backpackers in Bangkok?”

Indeed, the Thai tourism industry seemed to have over-reacted to the travel advisories which, upon closer look, were much more realistic than has previously been the case.

South Korea and Singapore were the only two countries that urged citizens to avoid non-essential travel but the advisories of the three main countries, Australia, UK and the U.S., which usually set the benchmarks by which others decide their own travel advisories, were down to earth.

None actually warned against travelling to Thailand, merely urged caution and vigilance and, in view of the disruptions to travel services, the need to remain in touch with the respective transport service provider.

Said the UK advisory, “If you are in Bangkok, or have plans to travel there, you should keep yourself informed of developments, including by regularly checking this advice and the media.”

It added, “If you are planning to visit Thailand in the next few days you should consider the present situation in Bangkok and that travel in Thailand is subject to possible disruption when making your decision.”

The Australian advisory begins somewhat curiously with a warning about “the high threat of terrorist attack.” The demonstrations were not mentioned until the third paragraph, accompanied by the warning that “travellers should exercise a high degree of vigilance at this time” and that “further violence cannot be ruled out.”

The Australian advisory noted more specifically than the UK advisory that the some airports were closed only between 29 and 31 August and that “most airports are now operating normally.”

However, it says that “the situation remains unpredictable and further disruptions to transport services and infrastructure could occur at any time. Increased security measures at airports could also cause delays.”

The US Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://travel.state.gov did not even include Thailand on either the lists of travel alerts or travel warnings.

The Thai situation was confined to the Warden’s Message on the US embassy site which was last updated on September 2 and, at the time of this writing late afternoon of Sept 5, was effectively out of date on several fronts.

For example, it referred to PAD Demonstrations turning violent and that “News reports also indicate that various railway, bus, utility, and airline workers may go on strike September 3 in sympathy with PAD protesters, possibly causing delays and outages.”

None of the advisories sought to put the situation into broader perspective by pointing out that life was normal in the vast majority of the city and the country.

Although the UK advisory noted that the “demonstrations are taking place in central Bangkok” that wording would confuse those unaware of the difference between the central business district of Bangkok, which was all clear, and the protest-hit areas around the government and ministry offices.

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