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Back to business – time for Thailand’s tourist industry to get ready

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OPINION by Bill Barnett from c9hotelworks.com

Tourism is a vital part of Thailand’s economy. And as the country emerges into the post-Covid world, getting tourists back to the country will be an essential springboard to the rest of the Thai economy. None of that will be automatic or easy as international travel has been severely disrupted and will take months, probably years, to recover. But once they arrive here, either as domestic, regional or international travellers, the decisions about where they stay will now shaped by new criteria.

As part of our series looking at “Thailand’s Countdown to Re-opening”, Bill Barnett looks at Thailand’s hotel industry as it prepares for the new ‘normal’.

The single most critical issue facing Thailand’s hotel operators and owners is the restarting of the country’s economic engine, which includes tourism.  From the ground today, the stark truth is it is high time hoteliers shift their current doomsday mindset.  They must stop falling into the bottomless trap of desperation and emotional despair that create the aura of an industry as a helpless victim. Exit Sandman enter Marvel.

First off, hotels need to change the narrative. The pathway to reopening Thailand’s Covid-19 stunted economic model is becoming clear, as the national curve of virus cases is statistically moving towards flatter terrain.  Science matters. But the clear and present danger is that the government must take control of the levers of the economic recovery or else the damage to the country’s tourism workforce will be even harsher and create tragic consequences.

Thailand’s travel and tourism industry directly contributes an estimated 12-14% of GDP, while the expanded and informal contribution is likely at 20% or slightly above.  More important to the percentage is that tourism is the face of the country that is now the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. The Thai smile is a global icon and symbol of the national character.

But as we move into unknown post-virus mode, the hotel industry has forgotten how to smile and lost its true essence, self-esteem and it it’s vital importance as a gateway to Brand Thailand.

In the coming days and weeks, hotels focus must be taking a look forward and not caught up in  the past. The pathway of tourism recovery will no doubt start at the domestic level and next radiate into intra-regional travel. Hotels and operators have to learn and adjust to a new regime of health and safety concerns at all levels of the experience – guests, staff, premises and supplies. There are no short-cuts here and the preparation of these processes has to be done today, as it’s an arduous task.

But equally important to the planning is the reality that travel preferences in the near future will be based on a new criteria.  It’s conceivable that potential guests who used to be influenced by TripAdvisor, will now make a travel decision based on perceptions and concerns  over personal safety, standards and hygiene.

Currently the Tourism Authority of Thailand is reportedly working on a set of new standards with the Ministry of Public Health, under the Safety and Health Administration. Regionally the Singapore Tourism Board has undertaken a health audit program for hotels and tourism establishment. The program will audit 570 hotels and venues in the next sixty days.

For Thailand’s tourism economy to restart it has to understand it must win visitors back. They won’t just magically return. There are no lack of choices in Asia and reality is a price driven recovery trajectory is likely given the intrinsic damage to businesses across all markets.

For those who say ‘we are headed into unknown territory’, a new villain named ‘fear factor’ has emerged. We have in reality entered a new business cycle and can learn a bit from history. Take 9/11 and the emergence of a fear of flying afterwards. Security, safety and standards were implemented to both avoid repeat incidents, and to instil traveller confidence. Yes, lines formed and travel took longer but what we have learned is the importance of travel as a part of our business and leisure lifestyle. It helps define who we are. In a nutshell, be it 9/11 or Covid-19, this too will pass.

For the hotel and travel sector the immediate task is to start planning for re-opening and rigorously addressing the new market challenges. Stop dwelling on what’s happened and move on. Tourism and hotels are a field of dreams and the reality is we did build it and they will come back.

The most important mantra today has to be that hotels and travel must return as superheroes.  They must understand the importance of this face and smile to their country, the jobs and livelihoods the industry provides, and makes steps toward getting back to work as soon as it’s safe. Look to the remainder of 2020 and beyond not with fear but with fight and determination. Thailand, it’s time we get back on the road and back to business.

 

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Bill Barnett has over 30 years of experience in the Asian hospitality and property markets. He is considered to be a leading authority on real estate trends across Asia, and has sat at almost every seat around the hospitality and real estate table. Bill promotes industry insight through regular conference speaking engagements and is continually gathering market intelligence. Over the past few years he has released four books on Asian property topics.

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