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Golf Tourism Muddled by Thai Political Unrest
Thailand's tourism sector continues to function despite political turbulence, a brace of canceled travel plans and worries from investors and ASEAN officials alike.
Thai Country Club
Heads of state across ASEAN (Southeast Asian Nations) called for peaceful, political solutions to the standoff, which had sputtered along for weeks before erupting on April 10th, leaving 21 dead. "The deteriorating situation in Thailand between demonstrators and government security forces in Bangkok has caused a serious concern among ASEAN member-states and the world at large," ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan said in a statement this week.
"Our concerns are two-fold," said Mark Siegel, CEO of Golfasian Co. Ltd., a Bangkok-based golf tour operator. "While 99 percent of the country's hotels and golf courses and restaurants are operating as normal, the more important concern is that we continue to have dozens of clients in country. We have to look out for their welfare and assure them that their safety isn't an issue because, in my view, it isn't.
Muang Kaew Golf Course in Bangkok
"There can be no minimizing the fact that 21 people are dead. But the reality is, I was all over Bangkok that day [April 10], out to the airport and downtown, and if you weren't surfing the Net or watching TV, you would not have known anything was amiss. The demonstrations and ultimately the violence have been restricted to very small, very specific areas of an enormous city. And the rest of the country is unaffected."
Siegel said the second concern is the long-term toll these events, still ongoing, will take on Thai tourism - one of the country's largest industries. No one can say, of course, but Thai Airways International shares slumped 14% Monday after countries including Russia, South Korea and China advised citizens to postpone trips to Bangkok following the weekend violence. Airports of Thailand dropped 4.1%; Minor International, the country's biggest hotel and restaurant operator, plunged 8.7%.
"It's hard to strike the right balance in assessing the effects going forward," said Siegel, American-born but a Thai resident since 1995. "It's disrespectful and simply untrue to assert that things are going forward as normal, and will go forward as normal. This is the worst political violence in 20 years.
"But it's also true that this is a country where the military has staged 18 separate coups since the 1930s, a country where politics are raucous and protests are common place. I mean, the past week's event have shaken the Thai people. No question. But from a tourist perspective, things will recover quickly. They always have."
Thailand's Fiscal Policy Office warned that Thai tourism arrivals might slump 20% this year. Some analysts are now predicting that up to $500 million could be lost from the Thai economy, as subdued Songkran (Thai New Year) celebrations will hit retail and tourism businesses hard.
Comparisons to the most recent political strife in Thailand are imperfect but instructive, Siegel said. In December 2008, red-shirted protestors staged a peaceful-but-extremely-disruptive protest at Suvarnabhumi, closing the international airport for three days.
"There was no real violence there, at all, but that incident spooked a lot of travelers and prompted a lot tourists to change their plans," Siegel said. "No one would have predicted it, but 2009 turned out to be our biggest year ever in terms of golfer visitorship. Things rebounded much stronger than anticipated."
Some foreign governments have issued advisories to travelers, but none have formally advised against travel here. The same Saturday that 21 were killed in Bangkok, Golfasian welcomed a party of 16 golfing Australians at Suvarnabhumi. Siegel said he escorted them to the Westin Sukhumvit in the heart of downtown - all without incident.
Siegel said he has "dozens more" golfers in country right now. Widespread SMS and cell-phone usage amongst tourists makes communication fairly straightforward, and Siegel said Golfasian is determined to keep current and scheduled visitors fully apprised of what's happening - and not happening - in Bangkok.
One message issued to Golfasian customers on April 11th read this way:
"The situation in Bangkok remains stable today. All golf courses and Golfasian hotels are open and totally unaffected by the protests. All BTS (Skytrain) stations have already re-opened, since 9 p.m. yesterday. All Bangkok Metro (MRT) stations operate as normal except Silom station, which you can still enter and exit at Gate No. 2.
"The department stores near Ratchaprasong intersection remain closed for security reasons, but department stores in all other areas of Bangkok are open for business as usual. All tourist attractions around the capital are open except Wat Benjamaborpitr (Marble Temple) which is affected by the protesters. We have changed the Bangkok City tour from Wat Benjamaborpitr to Wat Suthat. The Rattanakosin historical district - Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Wat Phra Kaeow (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) - are operating normally.
"We suggest only to avoid the Phan Fah Bridge and Ratchaprasong intersection where the protesters have gathered and also the area of Khao San Road."