On the morning of May 22, the army of the Kingdom of Thailand staged a coup d’etat against a transitional government that had ruled the country for about six months, declaring that Thailand would henceforth be governed by a junta.
The coup’s repercussions sent shock waves across this traditionally peaceful constitutional kingdom and were particularly felt within the travel industry, which feared that the coup would put a dent into what for years has been one of the strongest tourism markets in Asia.
For U.S. travel agents and tour operators who book the bulk of the 823,486 Americans who visited in 2013, the news was ominous. Some cancellations were reported and an undetermined number of travelers changed their destinations.
But Thai resilience—plus the fact that the coup proved to be almost a non-event—prevailed, and tourism is already showing signs of a quick recovery.
Less than three weeks after the coup, the Thailand Tourism Authority (TAT) successfully staged its annual Thai Tourism Travel Mart Plus (TTM) from June 4-6 in Bangkok. From all appearances, the travel mart showed that the new government considers tourism a crucial segment of the economy, all the while underlining that “Thailand and Bangkok are open for business”—a mantra uttered by most of the tourism officials at the event.
However, the effects of the coup still prompted TAT to gaze into the crystal ball and predict that tourist arrivals will be down: an expected 25.8 million this year, compared to more than 26 million who visited in 2013.
During a press conference, TAT Governor Thawatchai Arunyik said, “We would like to inform you that the word ‘coup’ in Thailand is not considered as sensitive as it is in other parts of the world. ‘Coup’ in Thailand is still peaceful and safe, for both the local people and for visitors to the country.”
Regardless of the political undertones, the successful hosting of the travel mart is proof that Thailand remains the safe destination for foreigners that it’s always been: Nearly 400 buyers from around the world took part in the event that highlighted the sunny side of travel to Thailand.
“As you may have seen, the Thai people enjoy their daily life as normal,” the governor continued. “Eating out, shopping, traveling, business meetings, even holding an important event like the TTM Plus. We strongly believe that Thailand’s tourism industry will rapidly bounce back.”
Regain its footing, as it were.
April Cole, director of operations and tours for Journeys Within, a Lake Tahoe, CA, tour agency, who attended TTM Plus as a buyer to “meet with current and existing clients—specifically hotels,” says the coup affected Journeys Within operations “only in the fact that our clients changed destinations. Instead of coming to Thailand, they booked trips to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.”
Cole, however, sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “After a couple of months, Americans, who make up the bulk of our business, will put the coup in the past and will begin booking Thailand again.”
Journeys Within has specialized in travel to Southeast Asia for the past 10 years, Cole says, adding that her company “books roughly 200 trips a year to Thailand.”
How does she find the current situation?
“I find it benign,” she adds. “It may seem unsettled to some at the moment, but time will put this in the past very rapidly. I would have no reservations about booking travel to Thailand—all of Thailand.”
Chureerat Kongtragul, TAT executive director, American Region, says that TAT is going ahead with projects long in the planning to make Thailand regain its stature as a prime destination.
“For travel agents, we’re offering new projects to help boost Thailand as a honeymoon destination with attractive packages,” she said.
“We recently brought a group of travel agents who specialize in honeymoons to show them the benefits offered in Thailand, which is the top honeymoon destination in Asia, with Bali coming in a distant second.”
The project, named with an exquisite Asian play on words, “Thai the Knot,” (thaitheknotspecialist.com) works with domestic airlines and tour operators and offers free domestic airfares to any of Thailand’s honeymoon destinations.
“The concept behind this is that consumers love deals,” Kongtragul continues, adding that she estimates that Thai tourism “took a 20 percent hit in the days immediately following the coup. But my opinion is that is will begin to level off by mid-June.”
She adds that,”American visitors dropped an estimated 15 percent, but the crisis came as the off season was beginning. Interestingly, we have done a preliminary study that shows that most visitors who were here during the crisis were not even aware of the coup until they reached home.”
Although she said that every major tourist attraction in Bangkok remained open, the bulk of Americans visiting Thailand “don’t come to Bangkok exclusively and I would advise travel agents to book their clients in the usual manner.”
As the country regains normalcy, with a free election promised within 15 months, Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, director of TAT’s American Market Division, says that “whatever numbers have dropped off with Bangkok visitors have been made up with Americans by-passing Bangkok and going directly to other destinations in the country.
“After all,” he adds. “Americans are a resilient lot and love to explore other Thai destinations where we offer everything that the Caribbean does, only with an exotic, exclusively Thai touch—things like elephant rides, trekking and fantastic beaches.”