Thailand tourism, innovate or die – OPINION

Red flags are flying in Thai tourism circles as the expected wave of international travellers is failing to materialise in the expected numbers. With the post-April 1 and Songkran ‘surge’ out of the way, the daily arrivals have been ‘flat’.

So the TAT say they’re pivoting their marketing to short-haul tourism as the long-haul markets and traditional travellers to Thailand remain thin on the ground, and unlikely to fill Thailand’s hotels and tour boats anytime soon.

There were big changes to the Thailand Pass on April 1 when all Covid testing was dropped, at least for vaccinated travellers. For unvaccinated travellers they merely needed a PCR test taken within 72 hours of their travel to Thailand. Quarantine was dropped for everyone except unvaccinated, or under-vaccinated travellers, who were unable, or didn’t want, to take the PCR test before their travel.

All this was a big step forward in the simplification of Thailand’s digital pre-travel registration program – the Thailand Pass. On June 1 even the pre-travel testing for unvaccinated travellers will be eradicated – an on-arrival ATK test is all that will required after this Wednesday. The Thailand Pass is also being scrapped from June 1 for Thai citizens.

Bars and nightlife are also being ‘officially’ opened again from June 1.

But, with all these reductions in regulations and red tape for travellers to Thailand, why aren’t Thailand’s tourist numbers springing back to pre-2020 levels? Is it just the mask regulations, insurance requirements and the 10 minutes required to upload vaccination and insurance documents?

Speaking to The Phuket News, Tanet Tantipiraykit, Chairman of Phuket’s Tourism Council, said that only 3,000 foreign tourists are arriving on the island each day, a small number compared to 2019.

In 2019 arrivals on Phuket averaged nearly 1 million international passengers each month. Now the number would be more like 90,000 a month, a recovery of sorts but a long way from a full recovery.

For Thailand to report a full recovery of tourists a few things would have to fall into place. It assumes that all the things that made travel easy and cheap pre-2020 would all magically return. Instead we now have rampant inflation, fewer, more expensive, flights, rising fuel costs, a war in Eastern Europe, and two of the main feeders for Thai tourism (China and Russia) locked out of international travel at the moment. Recessionary clouds are also looming over some of the world’s leading economies.

All these factors are hampering world tourism, not just Thailand. Dwindling discretionary spending for travel is being spent on shorter, more local, experiences.

So Thailand’s TAT offices say they are going to target short-haul destinations, specifically South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and the UAE (as there are many direct flights still arriving out of the UAE countries).

With this changing, and much reduced, tourist mix coming to Thailand the hospitality, tourism and retail industries are scrambling to find the best cocktail of suitable accommodation and experiences.

Speaking to bar owners and beverage industry representatives during the week it was made clear to The Thaiger that the current arrivals had little interest in sitting in bars. And the Thais were still avoiding going out anywhere near the levels they were in pre-Covid days. So, despite many of the bars reopening, either officially or unofficially, they are currently seeing a hugely reduced patronage.

Another spokesperson in the tourism trade, Pisut Saeku, President of the Thai Hotels Association – Eastern Chapter, believed that the dropping of the Thailand Pass for Thais this week would help the situation (how?!). Pisut also predicted that there would be a 50% rise in tourist traffic by the end of the year, mostly from India and Vietnam.

Speaking to online viewers on a live vlog yesterday morning on Thaiger Weekend Update yesterday morning, I asked the question “where were the tourists coming from in this ‘recovery’ era for Thai tourism?” Few of the respondents provided much hope, most saying that Thailand had shot itself in the foot with it’s delayed re-opening, the lingering hate of the Thailand Pass, bad PR from social media of tourists that made the journey earlier this year and ended up in various Covid/Hotel/Hospital scams. And the requirement to wear face-masks.

James Liang, Chairman of Group, one of the world’s largest OTAs (online travel agents), said in a article that ‘product innovation’ will be the key to the world travel industry’s recovery. The trick would be to “make travel easier and more fulfilling”, not more complicated with businesses still shuttered when the tourists arrive.

James said that people were booking more spontaneously, with less lead time, and destinations much closer to home. He also noted that travellers now looked for a lot more flexibility.

“Asian travellers surveyed reported free cancellation, flexible presale bookings and insurance coverage were the most important factors when booking travel nowadays.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around trips. So people prefer to travel with a lot of flexibility.”

We’ve seen little of this ‘flexibility’ in Thailand where there appears to be an expectation that if they open the airport and the hotel doors, travellers will magically return.

In the same way that previous terrorism changed security and the way we fly, Covid-19 will also leave a lingering mark on world tourism. Asians, especially, will look for a ‘cleaner’ experience where they feel less susceptible to disease – Covid or otherwise.

“Developments such as contactless check-in at hotels and airports, virtual tours of museums, and virtual experiences are not going to disappear. People are cleaning their hands, paying more attention to things like menus and avoiding sharing drinks and food.”

Certainly many Asian cultures will not forgo their face mask wearing any time soon, even when all the mandates and requirements are dropped.

The media and governments are also focussed on every little viral outbreak around the world, and social media conspiracy theorists continue to bang their keyboards about ‘this’ virus and ‘that’ vaccine. It all adds to a climate of uncertainty as people look at their travel options.

In the immediate future Thailand will surely need to look to flights within 5 hours to bolster its tourist numbers. Otherwise it’s incumbent on everyone in Thailand’s tourist food chain to innovate, or die.

OpinionThailand NewsTourism News

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Tim Newton

Tim joined The Thaiger as one of its first employees in 2018 as an English news writer/editor and then began to present The Thaiger's Daily news show in 2020, Thailand News Today (or TNT for short). He has lived in Thailand since 2011, having relocated from Australia.

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