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Recovering from the Political Unrest

By Debbie Dionysius

Safety and events. These are main issues international tourists consider when contemplating if they want to visit Asian holiday destinations like Phuket  in Thailand in the aftermath of  uncontrollable events like the Bangkok  political upheavals  or to an alternative Asian competitor like Bali, Indonesia after its 2002 bombing.

In both cases these important Asian tourist destinations suffered enormously from the impact of government imposed advisories warning their nationals not to visit. For Phuket there was a double whammy as the advisories were for Thailand, even though the violence was only confined to a small part of Bangkok. For Bali the task was, arguably, even tougher as it, literally, had to recreate its image as a safe destination in the wake of genuine terrorist bombings which killed 202 people in 2002.

In this regard it is worth taking an historical look at how Phuket’s image recovered from the 2004 Tsunami and, equally, how Bali bounced back from the devastation to its tourist based economy  and relate them to what Thailand as a whole is facing today after the Red Shirt riots and subsequent tourism downturn.  In general, the inevitable fallout of such destructive influences is short term loss of investment confidence, declines in economic growth and lower job creation. The longer term consequences include unemployment, bankruptcies, business closures, migration, increased social tension and changes in lifestyle. 

To avoid such long term impacts, the most immediate imperative is to convince potential tourists that they will be safe. In Phuket’s case this should not be too difficult provided government’s stop issuing catch-all advisories covering all of Thailand. After the Tsunami the large government commitment to invest in restoring Phuket’s infrastructure and measures like installing Tsunami warnings, gave some reassurance that the island was a safe destination. In Bali’s case it was harder because terrorism was involved, but through the efforts of organizations like the Bali Recovery Group, a coalition of organizations formed to oversee the recovery effort, and the World Bank, tourism to the island recovered strongly less than two years after the attacks.

Thailand and Bali have also used campaigns and slogans to attract tourists back. Thailand currently has its post Bangkok upheaval “Visit Amazing Thailand, Never Leave You” and its “Thailand Welcome Back” campaigns, with more Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) backed marketing activities and promotions promised in the coming months. Bali had its “Bali for the World” and “Kuta Karnival of Life” campaigns after the bombings, which focused on the island’s rich cultural assets.

But such slogans and campaigns by themselves are not enough. Once prime tourist destinations like Phuket and Bali get through the initial shocks of major setbacks—and tourists are assured they are safe—the major thrust for restoring economic, social and cultural wellbeing to such locations must come from a concentrated and focused marketing campaigns. The post-Tsunami research revealed that, after safety, the travel motivators for returning to Phuket were the area’s beauty, the welcoming attitude of the people and value for money.  Curiously, the research showed that low cost packages were not the answer to attracting tourists back.

So to the present situation.  The Bangkok standoff caused an estimated 60 billion to 70 billion baht loss in tourism related revenues, according to the Tourism and Sports Ministry. The Government has earmarked 5 billion baht to help tourism related businesses recover. But, as Prakit Chinamornpong, president of the Thai Hotels Association lamented “we’ve got to start all over again.” A Phuket Gazette poll of 536 readers in June showed 59.7% said the protests seriously harmed Phuket’s economy. Of that number, 67% of foreign residents thought the impact was serious, compared to 52% of people identified as tourists or visitors. So the concern amongst the local business and resident community on Phuket was very high.

Well, if that is the case a good place to start the road to recovery is promotion of events by local hotel and hospitality businesses on Phuket that will attract specialist visitors, such as music festivals,  marathons, triathlons, yacht races,  events for children, cultural events, and other specialist sports events such as rugby 10s and cricket 6s, surfing carnivals, beach dance parties and Thai religious celebrations. Many such events can be held during the April-October Summer season despite the wetter weather. Bali offers a smaller range of activities, but has a strength in the cultural and religious festivals it can offer—plus some world class surfing.

In Thailand, the TAT, for its part, must strenuously market Thailand, and its prime tourist spots such as Phuket, in places like Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China as well as fast growing markets such as Russia, Central Europe, the Middle East and India. The TAT has already launched “We Love Thailand” and  “Thailand Summer Special Offer” campaigns aimed at the Middle East. Domestic tourism is also receiving some focus. The success of large scale markets in Bangkok to attract local shoppers points to a readiness for Thais to do their bit for the economy.

In addition, major tourist operators, such as airlines, can offer promotions, such as cut price seat sales for a limited period. The situation does not mean that the higher end hotels on destinations like Phuket need to enter into a cut price war. As the post-Tsunami research showed that while tourists wanted value for money, they were not particularly attracted by low priced packages. The key to Phuket’s recovery is reassurance the island is safe, which it is, and creating an attractive environment around a variety of well promoted events coupled with aggressive off-shore marketing in key target markets, including the domestic Thai market.

Debbie Dionysius is Assistant Vice President, Destination Marketing at Laguna Phuket, Phuket’s largest hotel group.




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