In the nick of time [Gulf, The (Bahrain)]
(Gulf, The (Bahrain) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) For Thailand's tourism authorities, the timing could not really have been worse. As the country's army assumed control of the southeast Asian country on 22 May - declaring military rule and imposing nighttime curfews in non-tourist areas to oust the government led by former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra - residents of the Gulf were busy making their summer holiday plans ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.Under normal circumstances Thailand, with its reputation for good value shopping, vibrant nightlife, lush scenery and beaches, is a popular retreat for Gulf nationals and expatriates. But as TV images showed a capital city in paralysis and soldiers on the streets, it appeared - even if it was effectively business as usual in the resorts such as Phuket and Samui - that these were anything but normal circumstances. And as some GCC governments started issuing travel advisories for Thailand, visitor numbers started to tumble.
"Due to the political situation in Thailand since late 2013, the number of visitors by nationality from the Middle East region declined in the first half of 2014 by 21 per cent when compared to the same period in 2013," said Chalermsak Suranant, the director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Dubai (TAT Dubai).
"However, since July 2014 when the political situation became more stable, we have seen a positive return in the number of tourists with visitor numbers picking up and returning to normal," he adds.
If the 13 June lifting of the nightly curfews represented a return to relative normality in Thailand, it also left tourism chiefs with the task of rebuilding the country's reputation as a stable destination.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) led the counter-attack, launching a charm offensive it hopes will result in a total of 25.6 million international visitors coming to the country this year, not far shy of the 26.5 million who came in 2013.
Optimistically, the TAT forecasts tourism revenue rising 2.18 per cent year-on-year to $38.4 billion in 2014. If that transpires, it would be a major fillip for an industry which accounts for roughly one fifth of Thailand's national gross domestic product (GDP), and would send a strong message about the country's resilience in the face of political turmoil.
There are signs that Thailand is very much back on the map for Gulf visitors since the events of early summer. As it plays catch-up, the TAT will, in particular, this year hope to attract more than the 630,243 tourists it welcomed from the Middle East in 2013. Of these, 123,000 were from the UAE, 71,000 from Kuwait, 28,000 from Bahrain and Egypt and 21,000 from Saudi Arabia.
"The Middle East market remains an extremely important one for Thailand due to the propensity of Middle East visitors to have a very high average length of stay and average daily expenditure," TAT Dubai's director says.
He points out that during the first half of 2014 visitors from the UAE had an average length of stay of 10.66 days and average daily expenditure of $183.10. Visitors from Saudi Arabia had an average length of stay of 9.95 days, and spent $171.51 per day on average, while visitors from Kuwait had an average length of stay of 10.51 days, and average daily expenditure of $166.62.
Thailand is also the world's leading medical tourism destination, with a 40 per cent global market share, earning the country some $4.31 billion in 2013 after an average growth of 15 per cent a year over the last decade. Of the 26.5 million people who visited the country last year, about 2.5 million came for medical reasons, according to figures from the Department of Export Promotion. Roughly a third of those came from the Middle East.
The political situation in Thailand had hit this sector too, especially when the military intervened to run the country. A 24 May report in the Nation newspaper revealed that luxury Bumrungard International hospital in Bangkok - which treats some 125,000 Arab patients every year - had seen a 12 per cent drop in foreign inpatients in the first quarter of 2014, and an 18 per cent fall in outpatients. Bangkok Dusit hospital, meanwhile, was said to have seen a 30 per cent drop in patient numbers from the Middle East, according to the newspaper.
TAT bosses will likely echo Suranant's confidence in the rebound of the Middle East market, aware of the frequent air links from most cities in the Gulf region into Thailand. The authority's Dubai office notes that there are currently 165 direct, scheduled flights per week operated by a total of 11 airlines on routes between the Middle East and Thailand.
"Emirates now has seven daily direct flights from Dubai to Bangkok, and Etihad Airways is also set to expand flights to Thailand on 26 October this year with direct flights between Abu Dhabi and Phuket, using a 262-seat Airbus A330-200 aircraft," Suranant points. Etihad recently revealed that the Thai capital Bangkok was its busiest route, in terms of passengers carried, during the Eid al Fitr holiday in late July and early August, ahead of London and Manila.
Thailand's sense of calm after the coup is real, at least to a visitor's eyes. An early August arrival at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport by this author suggested business as usual, even if some taxi drivers and shop keepers complained that visitor numbers from China - Thailand's biggest overseas market - were still suffering as the unrest put travelers off.
However, if Thailand's political system can discover stability and tourist numbers rebound in the last four months of the year, there is no reason to think the TAT's visitor and revenue targets will not be met.
The country has shown its ability to recover before, of course - in 2010 Bangkok was brought to a standstill by the now famous red and yellow shirted protesters, yet the impacts of that on the tourist industry were largely temporary.
Looking to restore and reinforce visitor confidence in Thailand, the TAT says its 2015 marketing plan aims to attract some 1.4 trillion baht ($43.8 billion) in revenue from foreign tourists, and 800 billion baht from domestic tourists. The marketing campaign will be rolled out under the slogan 'Amazing Thailand: Happiness Within'.
In this land of smiles, conflict and coups are never far away. But never too close to keep foreign tourists away for long.
(c) 2014 Al Hilal Publishing & Marketing Group Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. (Syndigate.info).
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