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18 Aug, 2015

Thai tourism industry again in crisis-management mode following Bangkok bomb attack

Bangkok – The Thai tourism industry was again in crisis mode on August 18 in the wake of a bomb blast at a downtown spiritual shrine popular with tourists. Heavy-duty meetings were under way nationwide between the public and private sectors on how to handle the aftermath of the blast which security authorities have publicly admitted was intended to target tourists and damage the country’s economy.

The blast has received widespread global media coverage. The casualties included visitors from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Oman. Tourism officials are being quoted by local TV stations as saying that while there is likely to be a short term impact, they are encouraged by the fact that none of the countries have banned travel to Thailand, merely urged caution.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways International, the various tourism industry associations and the legions of airlines, hotels and tour operators are monitoring their global offices and booking systems to establish the extent of the business impact. The industry had been coasting along at full speed this year, expecting to make a full recovery from the impact of last year’s military coup and end 2015 with more than 28 million arrivals.

Thai security authorities are scouring through video footage from the dozens of CCTV cameras in the area, including those of the Traffic Police, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the various hotels and shopping malls. It is only a matter of time before they identify the perpetrators and track their movements. Pending a full investigation and establishment of the facts, security authorities are avoiding all kneejerk reactions such as rounding up the usual gang of suspects or speculating about the motives.

The National Police Chief gave a statement this morning agreeing that the perpetrators did target tourists, and specifically a spot at which it was well known that there would be many of them. However, he was realistic enough to admit that the police simply cannot cover all the tourist spots, without itself deterring tourists. The Thai government, as well as all governments, have to deal with the fact that acts of violence will occur regardless of how much security they provide.

Crisis management has been in high-gear mode. Within five hours, the National Council for Peace and Order was on live TV to explain what had happened and what was being done, in both Thai and English. The Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Public health have been instructed to communicate with the relatives of the victims.

The quick response was necessary to counter bizarre public speculation about the cause of the attack. Some media outlets claimed an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was used. Others claimed it was tied to a utility pole. The Washington Post speculated the device was mounted on a motorcycle. Some global media played up the words “Hindu shrine”, as if to imply that there was a religious motivation behind the attack. The Nation quoted an unidentified source as claiming that an “Arab-looking” man was being hunted.

Social media made the situation worse. Speculation went crazy within minutes, mainly over the number of victims. The number kept changing because nobody knew exactly how many casualties had occurred. The Thai government had to warn the public against blindly following social media misinformation and disinformation which was further confusing the situation with baseless rumours about closures of banks, schools and public places.

The entire Ratchaprasong area is due to reopen for normal traffic movements after 12 noon on Aug 18 after being temporarily closed off to facilitate completion of the investigations. As some countries are issuing advisories urging caution while traveling in Thailand, some short-term cancellations are sure to follow. It is likely, however, that the industry will recover fairly quickly, unless there are more attacks.

For my readers abroad, please spread the word that cancellations will do no good. Not a single public facility was affected. The hotels in the immediate vicinity – the Grand Hyatt Erawan and the Inter-Continental — are open as usual. The department stores are open, although devoid of customers, but with stepped up security for those entering.

Realistically speaking, the Thai tourism industry will have to deal with the short-term issues arising from promotion of “Thainess” and “Thailand as a Quality Tourism Destination”. The attack also creates a headache for the Chinese government in coping with the increasing security-related problems facing its hordes of tourists around the world.

The only beneficiaries from this attack will be security companies and suppliers of CCTV cameras and other equipment who will enjoy another round of windfall profits as the entire area upgrades security.

The perpetrators themselves achieved nothing. If it can be found out who did this and why, there will be nothing but outrage against whatever evil cause they are peddling.