Monday, August 24, 2015

Tourism and terror in Thailand


Bangkok has bounced back from trouble in the past. Bangkok bombing sends jitters through the Thai tourism industry.

The 17 August Bangkok bombing of Erawan shrine has clearly punctured the growth of international tourism to Thailand in 2015.

Just a few days before the bombing the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), celebrating a year of relative stability, welcomed the 19 millionth international visitor to the country for 2015. Thailand’s tourism industry was confident of achieving a record number of 29 million international tourism arrivals for 2015.

The bombing, one of the most serious terrorist incidents to occur in the Thai capital, is likely to have a negative impact on tourism growth for the remainder of the year.

Although Thailand has achieved spectacular growth in attracting international tourism since 2000, natural disasters (the 2004 tsunami and the 2011 floods), the fear of epidemics (SARS 2003), and political instability (2009-10, 2014) have all led to either year-on-year declines or a stagnation of growth.

In 2000 Thailand attracted 9.6 million tourists. By 2013, Thailand’s peak year for international tourism, the country attracted 26.5 million international tourists who contributed US $46 billion to the Thai economy – just over 17 per cent of Thailand’s GDP.

The outbreak of political demonstrations in Bangkok in early 2014 and the subsequent 22 May military coup contributed to a significant 8 per cent reduction of international tourism arrivals in 2014 compared to 2013.

Tourism is traditionally sensitive to events which undermine social, political or economic stability. The TAT is acutely sensitive to crisis events and is among the world’s most effective national tourism bodies in responding to and managing these.

They are supported by the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a leading transnational tourism association that has frequently shared its expertise in risk and crisis management since it established its headquarters in Bangkok in 1998.

TAT was quick to issue reassuring statements on its website a day after the bombing to announce security upgrades in central Bangkok.

However, last Monday’s bombing added a new and dangerous dimension to the issue of tourism safety in Thailand. Previous outbreaks of political violence in Bangkok, and the ongoing unrest in southern Thailand have not targeted tourists, although some tourists have been caught in the crossfire.  The 17 August bombing was clearly designed to kill both innocent Thais and international visitors.

The ability of any security service in the world to prevent a rogue bombing attack in a busy urban centre is limited.  Thailand is no exception.

At least half of the victims of the bombing were from some of Thailand’s most important tourism source markets: China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore which between them represent one-third of Thailand’s inbound tourists. In addition to the global reputational damage to Thailand’s image as a safe destination, the impact of tourists killed from these countries will be especially acute.

A survey conducted in January 2014 by the US based Overseas Security Advisory Committee of the State Department sought US business attitudes to travelling to Thailand in the wake of the civil unrest in early 2014. It found that over 25 per cent of US companies doing business in Thailand either cancelled employee travel arrangements or the staging of and participation in conferences planned for Bangkok.

The unrest of early 2014 was certainly not targeted at tourists and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to imagine that the Bangkok bombing would elicit a far more extreme response from business travellers.

Thailand is one of the world’s most resilient tourist destinations. Although there is almost certain to be a short term drop in tourism arrivals following the Bangkok bomb, destination Thailand has a habit of bouncing back.

However, the caveat to a bounce back is that there are no follow up bombing attacks deemed as a mortal threat to tourists. Thailand’s volatile political environment suggests that the nations’ tourism industry is justifiably jittery.

Dr David Beirman is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism, University of Technology, Sydney and works closely on tourism crisis management issues with the Pacific Asia Travel Association.  Photo by Mike Behnken on flickr

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