Thailand rolls with the punches

By Michelle Baran
In the wake of catastrophic flooding that threatened to submerge Bangkok in the fall, Thailand is once again proving to be remarkably resilient as a vacation destination. The flooding caps a series of crises and disasters the country has suffered in recent years, including the devastating 2004 tsunami and sometimes violent political uprisings.

Thailand "is a destination that works like a prize-winning boxer," said Diane Molzan, general manager for Asia at Goway Travel. "It takes hit after hit but always bounces back relatively unscathed. The resilience of the country has always impressed and amazed me."

Molzan said that the flooding actually had little effect on Goway's sales; while the company did have a few cancellations, "the Christmas season still sold out for many of our properties."

Wat Prathat Doi Surthep templeOther operators, however, reported a more significant impact on bookings, and Juthaporn Rerngronasa, deputy governor for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, estimated that the county lost approximately 500,000 visitors and $1 billion in tourism revenue in 2011 due to the floods.

But she also noted that despite the setbacks, the country still expects to be up in tourism numbers for 2011 compared with 2010.

In the first nine months of 2011, Thailand saw a 27% increase in tourists compared with 2010, according to Rerngronasa. In 2010, Thailand welcomed 15.9 million tourists, and Rerngronasa said she expects that the country will end 2011 about 20% ahead of that, or with about 18.5 million to 19 million international tourist arrivals.

The 'Christmas tsunami' forward

On Dec. 26, 2004, vast swaths of Asia were decimated by a powerful earthquake and tsunami that ultimately killed tens of thousands of people across the region. Among the areas hardest hit was the Thai island of Phuket, a popular beach destination, where some 8,000 people died.

As the world looked on in disbelief at the horrific images on their TV screens, the Thai people began to pick up the physical and emotional pieces, a process only worsened by the ensuing dip in tourist arrivals.

The tsunami dealt a blow to tourism "due to it occurring during the Christmas holidays together with the amount of media exposure that the tsunami received," said Marilyn Downing Staff, founder and president of Boulder, Colo.-based Asia Transpacific Journeys.

Thailand's international tourist arrivals dipped slightly from 11.7 million in 2004 to 11.6 million in 2005. In the following years, the numbers started to build, but just as they did, the global economic crisis hit in 2008, coinciding with growing political unrest.

Srisuda WanapinyosakThe protest movement, which became identified with its members' trademark red shirts, ultimately claimed dozens of lives, most recently in April and May 2010 when political clashes turned deadly; 90 people were killed and nearly 2,000 wounded during rioting in Bangkok.

In May 2010, according to the tourism authority, international arrivals at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport dropped 20% year over year. Visitors from the U.S. were off more than 25% that month.

Yet overall, Thailand welcomed 15.9 million international visitors in 2010 compared with 14.2 million in 2009.

In the end, this Southeast Asian country, like many destinations worldwide, was hit harder by the global economic crisis than by any other setback.

"It's a roller coaster," Marty Seslow, vice president of marketing and sales at Gate 1 Travel, said of the ups and downs Thailand has faced over the years. But through it all, he noted, "it was an awesome and soaring destination, and that stayed true until 2008. Then we saw a dip as we went into 2008 and 2009. That wasn't Thailand's fault; that was the economy's fault."

Yet despite all that, he said, "of those things the flooding of the last few months has had the biggest impact."

The surge

In late October and early November, after weeks of some of the most severe rains and flooding Southeast Asia had seen in half a century, media attention zeroed in on Bangkok, where questions about whether and how the city would defend itself against a possible flood surge brought tourism to a near standstill.

Elephant trekkingIn the end, inner Bangkok and the capital city's main tourist sites and hotels were spared. But the damage to Thailand's tourism industry during the weeks of uncertainty had been done.

During the high season, for example, the number of people visiting the Grand Palace, one of the city's main tourist attractions, dropped to as few as 1,000 a day from what had typically been about 10,000 to 20,000, according to a local tour guide.

"The biggest challenge from our flooding crisis was the communication," Rerngronasa said in November while attending the Chiang Mai Travel Mart in Thailand. "Because this is the worst crisis in flooding for our country in 50 years. But the reality is that central Bangkok and some of our main destinations haven't been affected."

Ultimately, the residents of the city sustained the brunt of the flood crisis, with the hardest-hit areas being suburbs in the east and west of Bangkok, the west bank of the Chao Phraya River and districts in the northern part of the city, according to the tourism authority.

What is it about Thailand?

Tour operators and travel agents that specialize in Asia said the country has several hard-to-beat selling points that have helped Thailand tourism persevere, including service and hospitality, good value, strong infrastructure and a diverse product offering.

"Within the last couple of years, Thailand has exploded in interest," said Patrick Evans, marketing communications coordinator at STA Travel, a student travel specialist. "In 2011, we've seen tour and hotel bookings to Thailand nearly double compared to the previous year. For young travelers, Thailand is fantastic because of the nightlife in Bangkok, full moon parties on the beach [events that take place around the time of a full moon on the island of Ko Pha Ngan] and reasonably priced accommodations. You can stay on Chaweng Beach in your own bungalow for less than $100 a night. Travelers get the great experience of being immersed in a different culture without having to sacrifice a relaxing vacation on the beach."

Chao Praya River skylineWhen asked what it is about Thailand that sets it apart from other Asian destinations, the most consistent response from travel sellers is the level of service.

Andrea Ross, owner of Journeys Within, a Cambodia-based tour operator that specializes in travel throughout Southeast Asia, said, "Thailand's tourism industry benefits from the Thai people themselves. You can sell a beautiful beach and fun activities, but in the end it's usually the people of a country that truly impact the visitor, and Thailand is just such a friendly country with amazing service and hospitality."

Another big selling point is the value. Though it's a long haul to get there, air prices and route options are increasingly competitive, with better connections through emerging gateways such as Seoul, South Korea. And once there, the prices on the ground are hard to beat.

Pam Hoffee, vice president of operations at the Globus family of brands, noted that Globus' Mystical Thailand tour starts at $168 per day, land only, for a small group vacation with no more than 20 passengers, including stays at superior hotels and many meals.

Monograms' Best of Thailand package starts at $133 per day, land only, also with stays in first-class hotels; breakfast daily; and sightseeing options in Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.

"There are some of the most beautiful properties in the world in Thailand and at a fraction of the cost that you would pay compared to other destinations," said Goway's Molzan. "There are other inexpensive destinations in the world, but often they are not the same caliber as Thailand."

Finally, Thailand has a broad range of offerings for travelers of many budgets, lifestyles and interests.

"Thailand's true strength is that it has something for everyone," Ross said. "We have honeymoon couples looking for that perfect beach escape, we have families who really want to enjoy soft adventure, and we have travelers who want to get to know more about Buddhism and the Thai culture."

Elephant Life ExperienceAnd then there's the food. "Thanks to shows like Anthony Bourdain's 'No Reservations' and the growing foodie culture in the U.S. ... the food is a highlight," Evans said.

A Southeast Asia moment

Thailand may also be benefiting from the growing appeal of neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia. While Thailand has been a relatively established tourism hot spot for decades, the fact that Vietnam and Cambodia are catching up means equal potential for competition and opportunity.

"Thailand is and will be the main gateway to Southeast Asia and the hub that will always feed the region," said Carlos Melia, a Tzell agent and blogger at CarlosMeliaBlog.com. "Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Bhutan are all interconnected by the interest that Thailand draws to the international traveler and the infrastructure that allows them to move freely in the region."

And while operators acknowledge that they are doing more combination itineraries with Thailand and nearby Asian countries, there is also the threat of Thailand becoming too mainstream as travelers seek out the next new thing.

"I think in some ways that's always the risk," said Journeys Within's Ross. "But we find that our first-time Asia visitors want to include Thailand and that it's a great country to start with in the region, then [they move on] to Laos and Cambodia. I do think as [Ho Chi Minh City] grows and the airport there becomes more of a hub, then Bangkok does lose some traffic."

Ross added that one notable advantage that Thailand has over Vietnam and Cambodia is that it doesn't require visas for most travelers.

Goway's Molzan also acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges facing Thailand is that it's a relatively small country, and "with so many other emerging destinations [in the region], some travelers may be less inclined to return to Thailand for a second visit."

Anticipating a bright future

Despite some of its recent setbacks, Thailand continues to build and evolve its tourism offering in anticipation of continued growth, with numerous hotel and resort projects in the pipeline.

Marco Polo at the Reclining Buddha complexThere is "a huge growth in hospitality," Melia said, adding that multiple new options range from ultraluxury properties like the Siam, a new hotel to be opened along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok in June, and the new W Bangkok slated to open in November.

And travel companies that work with the destination are hoping for relative calm in the coming year, which would make the prospects for Thailand's tourism industry quite bright.

The prospects for Thailand, Molzan said, "are excellent, especially if Mother Nature takes a break from picking on this wonderful destination."

Indeed, Globus' Southeast Asia bookings are 24% ahead of this time last year, with Thailand up 38%. Hoffee said the company's Monograms package to Thailand is one of the top Asia packages this year.

Gate 1's Seslow added, "I've never had as many sold-out future departures."

Still, much depends on weather, geology and politics. For now, those who sell Thailand, as well as those who aspire to, are holding their breath during this moment of calm after a series of storms.

For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

Thailand's other tourism industries: Sex and medicine

A medical tourism facility under construction in Bangkok.While Thailand's mainstream tourism industry continues on its steady growth path, the country is also promoting its burgeoning medical tourism market while struggling to change its image from a sex tourism destination to an adventure-rich, ecofriendly destination.

On the medical tourism front, the Tourism Authority of Thailand says that more than 1 million visit the country each year for medical procedures. More than 20 hospitals in Thailand hold accreditation from the Joint Commission International, a voluntary group that certifies international hospitals that maintain a certain quality of care and service.

Thailand has garnered a reputation for laser, cosmetic and cardiovascular procedures and continues to develop sprawling medical tourism facilities that cater to medical travelers, complete with luxurious accommodations and extensive rehabilitation services.

One of the reasons that industry continues to thrive, according to the tourism authority, is that the cost of medical treatments in Thailand remains significantly lower compared with treatments in Europe and North America. For instance, heart bypass surgery that would cost $130,000 in the U.S. runs about $11,000 in Thailand, according to the tourism authority. And cosmetic treatments in Thailand are roughly 50% what they cost in the U.S.

Medical tourism represents the opportunity for Thailand to expand its reputation for hospitality into the realm of medical services, but the country's seedier reputation as a sex tourism destination is one it is actively trying to shed.

"Movies like 'The Hangover Part II' certainly didn't help disprove some of the more risque aspects of Bangkok, but overall many of our travelers are going more for the Hilltribe treks [in the Chiang Mai region] than with just a day or two in Bangkok," said Patrick Evans, marketing communications coordinator at STA Travel, an agency specializing in student and youth travel.

While it's hard to know whether the sex tourism trade is growing or diminishing, anecdotally, ground operators report a sense that international governments and organizations are cracking down on the practice and bringing more offenders to justice.

"Thailand does have its share of sex tourism, but I think it has improved greatly in the last five years [in combating sex tourism] and will continue to improve," said Andrea Ross, owner of Journeys Within, a Cambodia-based tour operator that specializes in travel throughout Southeast Asia.

Diane Molzan, general manager for Asia at Goway Travel, also noted that "The Hangover Part II," the 2011 hit comedy that takes place in Thailand, didn't help Thailand's sex tourism image.

"With Hollywood movies like 'The Hangover Part II' having such popularity, it probably is difficult for Thailand to shake that perception, but I honestly don't think that people opt not to travel to Thailand as a result," Molzan said. "Sex tourism is there for people who search it out, but it's not so pervasive that there is no escaping it." -- M.B. 
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