BANGKOK – Thailand has seen a huge drop in the number of tourist arrivals in the first three quarters of the year. In August, figures were down 11.9 percent from the previous year and in September, tourist arrivals slumped 7 percent year-on-year.
Business analysts and industry stakeholders blamed the decline on prolonged street protests, a military coup and increased reports of tourism-related crime. They are concerned the lull will stretch into the country’s annual peak travel season starting in November.
While figures for October have indicated an increase of 10 percent in foreign travelers, industry players have credited the rebound to visitors from China during its Golden Week holidays. They said that continued growth is not possible if more is not done to boost Thailand’s image as a holiday destination.
To allay fears, the Thai government has tasked its Tourism Ministry to find new ways to encourage travelers to visit the ‘Land of Smiles’. It has announced a number of initiatives to put the shine back on popular activities, such as bicycle tours, and also increase the number of destinations for Thais to count down the New Year. And it will work to promote 12 Thai cities across the next 12 months.
But not everyone in the travel industry thinks the initiatives will work. Surath Pachoo, general manager of Narai Hotel, said: “They are focusing on the domestic market. It’s as if they are inviting Thais to travel during the New Year period. I think the activities that they have suggested will not suit foreign tourists.”
There are also concerns that the recent murder of two British tourists could further discourage visitors. Already, the British Embassy has issued new travel warnings.
But the Thai government is confident Thailand will stay popular with international tourists during the peak season. It claims that with martial law still in place, Thailand is safe for travelers. It has also vowed to increase the presence of police to deter crime and to protect tourists.
But opinions about the benefits of martial law are divided. On Khao San Road, a very popular destination in Bangkok, shop owners said the usually bustling area has been quieter this year. Street vendor Piak said: “I think (the government) can try to solve the problem, but if they do not end martial law, things will stay the same. Foreign tourists will not come here.”
But some tourists like Hanna Theander said they feel safer now that Thailand is under martial law. “We prepared ourselves very well to come here, because it is not so safe. But we found out that it’s safer than we thought,” said Hanna.
Still, the proof lies in the numbers. And all eyes are on the government to ensure that the tourism sector, one of the largest contributors to Thailand’s GDP, bounces back over the next three months.