At the heart of Alex Garland’s 1997 bestseller The Beach is a quote the travel industry can take to heart.
“One of these days,” opines narrator Richard, “I’m going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I’m going to ask him, just what is so lonely about the Khao San Road now?”
No one can argue with Thailand’s meteoric rise as a tourist destination. From the crowded backpacker hostels on Khao San, to the new luxury haunts around Sukhumvit Road, this is most British travellers’ first taste of the Far East.
Culture, beaches, great food and – crucially – an affordable price tag lure more than 800,000 Brits there every year. But the recent events in Bangkok – the latest in a long line of increasingly violent disputes – could prove to be its Achilles heel.
Last week’s disturbances in Bangkok can be traced back to one man: telecoms tycoon and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His populist, left-leaning policies won a lot of support from the rural poor, particularly in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, but this wasn’t enough to protect him from accusations of corruption and a military coup in 2006 (see box opposite). He fled Thailand in 2008 and is suspected of orchestrating last week’s protests from Hong Kong.
Current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is now faced with two sets of protestors: the red-shirted Thaksin supporters, whose recent action at Government House left two dead and more than 120 injured, and the yellow-shirted anti-Thaksin group, whose airport protest in November delayed thousands of travellers during a week-long sit-in.
For good measure, Abhisit is accused of bias for the tough stance taken with the red shirts; declaring a state of national emergency and calling in the army to disperse the crowds. The current crisis is over but, needless to say, this one could run and run.
What then, is the response of the travel industry? Business as usual, apparently.
Premier head of faraway product David Carlaw was in Bangkok while the red shirts were camped outside Government House.
“As a tourist, you wouldn’t have known anything was going on. The only way to follow it was by reading the papers,” he said.
Funway Holidays product development manager for the Far East Melissa Tilling drew a parallel with the recent G20 demonstration in London.
“Neither our staff nor customers in Bangkok had any reason to think there was a problem,” she said. “That’s not to downplay it – you can’t – but it was in an isolated area away from all the key tourist sites.
When contacted by their ground handlers, Funway’s clients were reportedly nonplussed and none changed their travel plans as a result.
Nevertheless, as soon as the Foreign Office advises against all but non-essential travel to a certain destination – as it did for several days on this occasion – tour operators have to step up their actions to ensure the safety of their clients.
Kuoni senior operations manager Lisa Cain-Jones said that means keeping up to date with the FCO website but also monitoring local media and other sources to anticipate any problems.
“I had been reading the Bangkok Post online and could see there had been an increase in activity, so we were ready when the Foreign Office escalated its advice.
“We had 36 clients in Bangkok at the time and every one received a letter at first, followed by a phone call from our ground agents.”
A Foreign Office advisory generally means a temporary freeze on bookings too, but, along with other operators questioned, Cain-Jones said most of those due to travel were unwilling to change their plans.
“A few tweaked their itineraries a little; doing the beach part first, for example, but 99% went ahead with the booking. That does show there is a great deal of consumer
confidence in Thailand.”
It doesn’t, however, mean there is room for complacency. Business is down by as much as 25% – the question is how much of that can be blamed on the economy.
Carlaw added: “There have been various difficulties over the past three years but they’ve not affected our business. Numbers are down now but that’s true of most places.”
The Tourism Authority of Thailand only has figures up until the end of 2007 – a healthy 835,000 from the UK and Ireland – but marketing manager Abigail Silver was still bullish.
“Visitor arrivals have been growing by about 5% annually for the past three years. This year we’re expecting a drop of about 5% – we don’t think it will be as bad as some people expect.”
What do they have in their arsenal then, to quell the decline?
Aside from the variety of product, value is Thailand’s not-so-secret weapon. A Post Office survey named it the cheapest long-haul destination for 2009, with prices lower than South Africa, Malaysia and Kenya.
Operators have also responded with good deals: Travel 2 is offering eight nights in Bangkok and Phuket from £619, saving £200, while Funway has eight nights in Phuket from £499, saving £330. Both are for travel until June 20.
The TAT is also promoting the new Amazing Thailand Card – a consumer loyalty scheme that gives discounts on accommodation and holiday activities.
Tilling added that airlift was another key factor: there are direct flights with Thai Airways, British Airways, EVA and Qantas and indirect services with Gulf Air, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar and Malaysian Airlines.
Thailand is very lucky, she added, to have the people it has, the level of service and the quality of accommodation, but she stressed the importance of controlling the threat of violence.
“The government was right to react strongly to law-breaking this time. When a protest goes beyond the rule of law, it has to be stopped.”
For now it has, and it doesn’t seem the Khao San Road will ever be lonely – backpackers are a hardy breed after all. If Thailand’s troubles persist, however, the luxurious new hotels around Sukhumvit may yet feel a little empty. Their future is in the politicians’ – and the protestors’ – hands.
Travel agent tips: In case of emergency…
- Don’t overreact. Give clients an accurate description of the situation. Check the travel advice on the Foreign Office website (fco.gov.uk). Check local media online, too.
- Book flights through an operator, not direct with the airline. If the FCO advises against all but essential travel, an airline may allow free rebookings but not a refund. Reputable operators will refund a cancellation in an emergency.
- Put it into context. in the case of the Thai disturbances, no tourists or tourist areas have been targeted and demonstrations have been mostly peaceful.
Timeline: Thailand unrest
- March 2005: Thaksin Shinawatra wins second election. Rural and urban poor motivated by healthcare reforms and debt relief.
- April 2006: Thaksin calls snap election after protests against his Thai Rak Thai party. It is boycotted by opposition parties.
- September 2006: Military coup removes Thaksin and installs retired general Surayud Chulanont as interim prime minister.
- May 2007: Thai Rak Thai party is officially banned.
- December 2007: Democratic election awards most seats to People’s Power Party, widely seen as a regrouped Thai Rak Thai. Samak Sundaravej sworn in as prime minister, but eventually deposed for hosting two TV cookery shows while in office.
- September 2008: Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, is appointed prime minister
- October 2008: Anti-government protests turn violent. Yellow-shirted demonstrators oppose PPP economic policies; ends with sit-in at Bangkok airport in November.
- December 2008: PPP found guilty of electoral fraud and is banned. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva forms coalition government.
- March-April 2009: Red-shirted supporters stage protests at ASEAN Pattaya Summit and Government House in Bangkok. Military clear crowds. Two protestors killed in fracas with locals angry about disruption.
- April 17 2009: Foreign office advice lifted but yellow shirt leader wounded in shooting.
Image: Sipa Press / Rex Features