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Thailand tourism seeks a return to scenes like this on Phuket

Tourism at War: The Fight to Save an Industry

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
THE OTHER struggle taking place in Bangkok right now is the fight by the tourism industry to maintain its viability.

Bill Owen, director of Oriental Leisure, an incentive and events organiser, has an international convention for more than 750 people beginning on Sunday - in Bangkok.

''I'm currently in the middle of ensuring that everybody is kept fully informed on what's actually going on in the city,'' he told Phuketwan.

''We are beginning to receive requests for updates on an hourly basis and we are simply trying to ensure that this event goes ahead.

''We are trying to put out as many fires as possible right now, to check the safety aspects of travelling in and around the city.''

His task is likely to prove a race against time.

Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a late night television speech that the situation in Bangkok was gradually being returned to normal under a state of emergency.

But will the red shirts continue to cause mayhem on the streets for the rest of the week?

''Hopefully the government and military will be able to get the situation under control in the next few days,'' Mr Owen said.

''If that's the case, we can all settle down for this particular event at least. But it hasn't been an easy ride.''

Those with jobs or investments in the travel industry in Thailand are the ones who are suffering most because of the continuing political unrest.

The country has not been stable since the 2006 coup that overthrew disgraced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

First Thaksin's yellow-shirt opponents took over the Bangkok airports in November. Now his red-shirt supporters are attempting to take over Bangkok's streets.

Meanwhile Thaksin simply urges a ''revolution'' (later modified to a ''peaceful revolution'') from sanctuary overseas, in self-imposed exile to avoid fraud and corruption cases in Thailand.

For Mr Owen, an involuntary participant in the yellow versus red rumble, the portents for the future of tourism in Thailand remain clouded.

''Sadly, the country is shooting itself in the foot,'' he said.

''I can't really comment on the mainstream tourism markets because as a company we are focused 100 percent on the meetings and incentives (MICE) business.

''What with the current global recession and the local political situation, the MICE-events business in Thailand looks extremely bleak indeed.''

Thailand has tended to let the protests play out rather than risk the alternative, outright civil war. But the strategy has left the country's once-magnetic tourism industry sidelined, and bleeding profusely.

Mr Owen says traditional long-haul MICE markets, especially from Europe and Australia, are already ''in major decline,'' mostly because of the global downturn.

''Now our local and usually faithful (and productive) markets of Singapore and other Asean-based areas are turning off their business, mostly because of the uncertainties of the political situation,'' Mr Owen told Phuketwan.

''Bangkok will certainly be devastated by the present crisis and Phuket will also inevitably have a knock-on effect.

''The MICE business is always affected by two major issues: security-safety and economic decline. Both are affecting this market right now.''

Expansion and diversification are the antidotes being pursued by Oriental Leisure.

The company is increasing its marketing, especially at international trade shows, and expanding services to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

''We are also starting to concentrate on our other specialist areas,'' Mr Owen said. The company also handles wedding planning, off-site catering, team building, local VIP and government events.

''It's vital to concentrate on your niche markets in times of recession and decline,'' he says. ''For us, 2009 will be an OK year.

''We feel we will be able to ride the storm while at the same time promoting ourselves in a much wider area for future business when it returns.

''However, we are not expecting a wonderful 2010.''

He says Thailand's government must ensure long-term stability before the country, and especially holiday-dependent destinations such Phuket, are able to recover.

''In the meantime, specialist suppliers like Oriental Leisure will have to reduce all relevant cost centres, diversify market bases while concentrating on niches, and to work with partners in developing long-term marketing and sales strategies for the future.''

Contact: bill@oriental-events.net

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