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Travel Alerts 'a Devastating Blow' to Thai Tourism

Friday, September 17, 2010
News Analysis

BLANKET travel warnings this year produced a ''devastating blow'' to Thailand's tourism industry and needlessly affected thousands of innocent victims, says a leading travel and retail figure.

In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok, Minor Group CEO William Heinecke said that issuing blanket travel warnings to avoid all travel to Thailand, as many countries did during the political unrest, ''was a devastating blow to Thailand's economy and, in my view, a mistake.

''This created unnecessary panic for international guests and dealt a severe blow to the entire Thai tourism industry, a sector that contributes seven percent to Thailand's GDP and employs hundreds of thousands of people.

''I feel strongly that foreign nations need to be more responsible in determining whether to implement a blanket travel warning, because the impact of doing so affects the livelihoods of millions of Thai citizens.''

Phuketwan has gone one step further and called for a united global system of alerts so all travellers are provided with timely advice. The lack of cooperation and coordination meant that during the political unrest in Bangkok, some nations considered their citizens did not need to be warned at the same time that others advised against all travel, even to Phuket and other parts of Thailand that were clearly safe.

The farcical result meant that, for example, Germans were being told it was safe to walk the streets of Phuket while people from Australia and Hong Kong were being told they were in considerable danger. In fact, all of them were always safe.

No tourists were targetted at any time in any part of Thailand. The blanket warnings were especially damaging because insurance companies declined to cover groups from those nations issuing warnings, impacting on tourist booking agents in those countries as well as in Thailand.

Yesterday Mr Heinecke said: ''I am pleased to report that most travel warnings to Thailand have now been lifted and I would like to thank all the foreign embassies for their efforts in making this happen.

''I understand and fully support the need to safeguard the interests and safety of foreign visitors to Thailand but this must be done in a responsible manner and in a way that is appropriately tailored to the situation at hand.

''I am pleased to note that neither India nor South Africa issued any travel warning during the recent red shirt demonstrations. They obviously felt their citizens were responsible enough to determine whether they should travel to Thailand and knew how to safeguard their personal safety - a refreshing approach compared to certain countries that effectively declared all of Thailand including places such as Phuket and Samui off-limits to their citizens.''

Mr Heinecke said it was of vital importance to the health of the Thai economy and Thailand's 65 million citizens that the state of affairs in Thailand ''is depicted as accurately and as responsibly as possible around the world.''

''People watching the news from their home in the US or Europe need to have a balanced understanding of events taking place in Thailand. This is where I strongly feel that the foreign diplomatic community and the media, who play a major part in framing the message, have a leading role to play.''

Phuketwan's research into the process that leads to travel alerts indicates that some embassies have a sophisticated understanding of Thailand and its politics and people.

Others take the blunt and often myopic approach that the safety of their own people overrides any commercial damage caused to Thailand (or any other country) or its innocent citizenry.

Sometimes, Phuketwan has been told, a recommendation made at an embassy in Bangkok and sent to the home country's head office (let's say for example the State Department in Washington) will be overruled.

This means that if CNN and the BBC are presenting an overly-dramatic version of events, the State Department may go with what it's seeing on television and reject the better-informed sage words of advice from its own officers.

Only rarely during the unrest did Phuketwan hear reporters or talking heads put the Bangkok violence in context by saying: ''Tourists are still arriving and departing from Phuket and other holiday destinations as normal.''

Phuketwan has also been told by sources within the Bangkok diplomatic community that reports from embassies are likely to become less realistic once the embassies themselves are forced to close, as was the case with many outposts in Bangkok in May.

The result of the confusion caused by the huge variation in individual national travel alerts is that the system is no longer believable and largely ignored by travellers - a situation that puts the citizens of all countries in greater danger.

Only a global system for all travellers, supplemented by more sophisticated email and telephone alerts for individuals, can fully restore travellers' faith in travel alerts.

As Mr Heinecke said: ''A new and better-calibrated approach to issuing travel warnings is especially timely, given the increasing frequency of civil disturbances around the world.''
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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Embassies are concerned with their citizen's safety, not profit margins of those who invested in a politically unstable, 3rd world country.
Those riots could have spread like wildfire throughout the country, travel warnings were proper.

Posted by Ripley on September 17, 2010 08:22

Editor Comment:

That's a matter of opinion. There is no evidence for your comment. Tourists were never targetted. There was never any real danger to tourists: the only minor injury we're aware of to a tourist was sustained by an Australian who wasn't even aware of the protest. There was no danger of the trouble ''spreading like wildfire.'' To have tourists from one country being (falsely) told a situation is dangerous while others are told just the opposite is, I would argue, not just odd but irresponsible. Some embassy officials even admit this, privately. To have alerts placed and lifted at different times by different embassies is also crazy. A few embassies simply guard their own backsides by consciously overstating these alerts. The end result: total confusion.

By the way, there is no longer a ''third world.'' Countries these days are either developed countries or developing countries. The travel alerts are a left-over from a time when there was a ''third world,'' and when communication was difficult and international cooperation a no-no. This is the 21st century, Ripley. Let's all move into it.

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Alternate view - maybe India and South Africa let their citizens down?
What price a life "safety of their own people overrides any commercial damage"?
Does money always rule?

Posted by Comment on September 17, 2010 08:37

Editor Comment:

India and South Africa were certainly at one extreme of a whole range of different opinions about the risks. That's the point - there is no consistency, which is why this old-fashioned nation-by-nation system doesn't work and needs to be replaced by a timely and effective global system. Your suspicions that this is all about money are unfair and ill-considered. The chaos of the present system makes all travellers everywhere less safe than they should be.

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I have hands on experience of this, it's called covering your backside. From the local embassy to the UK Foreign Office or equivalent in other countries.

Posted by Alan Cooke on September 17, 2010 09:33

Editor Comment:

Thanks, Alan. Many readers would remember but for those who don't, Alan was Britain's honorary consul on Phuket for many years.

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Dear Editor,
If the purpose of adding your personal comments to people's opinion is to stop people posting their view, you are doing an excellent job.

Posted by NEClausen on September 17, 2010 10:14

Editor Comment:

Very kind of you to let me know, NEClausen, but there are plenty of other places where you can have your say without fear of contradiction. This is not a chat site. Here, we hold conversations.

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I agree with the editor, mostly.

Travel warnings were only necessary in regards to Bangkok, where the military had opened up live fire zones and was shooting anyone on site, including foreigners, in a gross violation of human rights and a crime against humanity.

However, there are airports in Chiang Mai and Phuket, safe places. Thailand is not a warzone yet, governments could simply tell people to stay away from Bangkok. Saying all of Thailand is unsafe hurts the tourist industry in an unnecessary manner.

Tourists, you can fly from Singapore direct to Phuket - avoid Bangkok, but still come and have some fun. There are good people here.

Also, Thailand is not a third world country. It's barely even "developing," either. The minimum wage may be absurdly low, yet people here are well dressed, well fed, educated and have all their basic needs met.

Posted by Octavian on September 17, 2010 11:07

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I have never seen a paper where the editor of a readers' opinion section will intervene and defend and argue all the time. Go ahead, editor, if you want to remain an opinionated, manipulative little rag.

Posted by Urban Turban on September 17, 2010 11:12

Editor Comment:

Forgive me for chuckling, Urban Turban. I thought democracy was all about freedom of speech. You have your opinion, I have mine. We both get to express them. On good newspapers, readers once had to identify themselves properly before being able to state an opinion. The nature of new media is different, but not entirely so. Your ''little rag'' jibe indicates you may not yet have come to terms with the digital age. Please explain how an editor in the digital age who responds to some correspondents - just as good editors have always done - is manipulative.

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Interesting article.

I think that people of different countries have different comfort levels of safety and it would be very challenging to get everyone to agree on what is safe/not safe.

Additionally, I think that the embassies just want to cover themselves in case something happens. Worst case would be for a kid to get injured and the overseas media going crazy as to why there was not a warning.

Posted by Anonymous on September 17, 2010 11:29

Editor Comment:

I better not respond or readers will be manipulated.

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Ideallistically you are right about a global system however in a country where the press is controlled and corruption runs rampant. Who will determine where is safe and where is not? Would certain streets in Bangkok been named?

I was there during the initial problems and never felt unsafe or in danger but when the evening news is showing pictures of gunfire and tanks rolling in the streets, who in their right 'political mind' wouldn't give a warning. Mr. Cooke is right, covering your backside.

After all it wasn't forbidden to travel to Thailand, just making people aware of the situation. This dialogue would be better used discussing ways to prevent future protests and begin the healing between the two parties. That includes holding those 'criminals' responsible on both sides.

Thailand has to stop blaming others for their internal problems. If I saw tanks rolling past Big Ben I would certainly cancel my trip to Jolly Old.

Posted by jon on September 17, 2010 12:25

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Great point, Jon. Let's all hope for a time when the disarray of travel warnings will be moot because all of Thailand is completely safe, secure and peaceful for all its citizens and visitors, the deep south included. One can only dream!

Posted by Lana on September 17, 2010 12:48

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Who is supposed to head up this theoretical global alert system? And who is to pay for this, or just another tax to the ever increasing tax for air travel?

Posted by Lee on September 17, 2010 13:17

Editor Comment:

The European Union is already talking about common diplomatic missions to reduce the ridiculously high number of individual national outposts. As borders disappear, so does the need for nationalism and blinkered vision. A global system would reduce costs and provide best-practice for all. If rules can be agreed and followed for international air travel, structuring and maintaining a global travel alert system should be easy.

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Hi Jon,
well-told " Thailand has to stop blaming others for their internal problems ". and moreover " ..holding those 'criminals' responsible on both sides.." But will never happen: so it's right they have what they deserve..

Posted by Richard on September 17, 2010 13:19

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Quote: "...This is not a chat site. Here, we hold conversations."

Classic!

This is not a news paper. Here we show news.

Posted by mike.hunt57 on September 17, 2010 15:47

Editor Comment:

Something like that. Phuketwan is a news and information site. It can be read, but it's not paper.

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"The European Union is already talking about common diplomatic missions to reduce the ridiculously high number of individual national outposts. As borders disappear, so does the need for nationalism and blinkered vision. A global system would reduce costs and provide best-practice for all. If rules can be agreed and followed for international air travel, structuring and maintaining a global travel alert system should be easy."

So does this mean "honory consuls?" You still haven't answered 2 questions: 1 who pays for this "global alert system" and 2. "If rules can be agreed and followed for international air travel, structuring and maintaining a global travel alert system should be easy." Ok, once again, who pays for this? And who heads this up? You haven't answered those questions.

Posted by Lee on September 17, 2010 17:18

Editor Comment:

The details can easily be resolved at the appropriate time. Many international bodies have been created from good ideas - and most of them save lives and money.

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"Tourists were never targetted".. Oh really.. Tell that to my friends who were caught in Phukets airport blockade.. Who when they tried to simply walk out and around the blockade were threatened with violence by the 'rent a mob'.

Thailand sowed these seeds, and so they shall reap the fruit. IMO they have been extremely lucky that mass tourism has a short memory, the current low numbers are far more about an economic situation than the travel advisories IMO.

Posted by LivinLOS on September 18, 2010 01:06

Editor Comment:

A few choice words hardly pose a risk to life and limb, which is what travel alerts are supposed to be about. Politics in Thailand isn't relevant to the issue of whether nation-by-nation travel alerts actually work anywhere. I don't recall a blanket alert for Thailand being imposed during the Phuket blockade.

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During the last demonstration Phuket was safe, but not the previous time when the airport was targeted and thousands of tourists where inconvenienced and lost time of work. Also Phuket (mostly Patong) is an unsafe place at the best of time with Tourists contentiously scammed by Tuc-Tuc, drivers taxis and other opportunists. Time to clean up Phuket to make it the fun place it used to before blaming other countries for warning their citizen about visiting a dangerous place

Posted by arco on September 18, 2010 03:35

Editor Comment:

Arco, Phuket is not an ''unsafe place at the best of time.'' That's the whole point. You exaggerate about Phuket in exactly the same way that blanket travel alerts exaggerate. The statistics show that only a tiny percentage of tourists and expat residents encounter problems of any kind in Phuket and Thailand, and these are often self-inflicted (motorcycle riding, drug-taking etc.) Perhaps you've been reading too many travel alerts. What you say about the need for Phuket's problems to be fixed is certainly true.

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Phuket " safe" ?
Tell it to the people that drowned. Per capita, maybe the highest drowning rate in the world? And then there are road accidents, but these are self inflicted?

I'd wager Phuket Wan has undisclosed business interests in the tourism sector.

Posted by Ripley on September 18, 2010 08:44

Editor Comment:

You are confusing the issue. The higgeldy-piggeldy travel alerts must be reformed for the safety of all tourists, everywhere. We need a common, cohesive system, globally. Without an international best-practice system, needless collateral damage will continue to be caused to innocent people by knee-jerk ''blanket'' alerts.

Yes, tourists have died unnecessarily from drowning on Phuket this year - more than the number harmed in the ''red alert'' in Bangkok. That only goes to show how ill-directed and inappropriate the blanket travel warnings were.

Most road deaths on Phuket (and in other places) are avoidable. Many countries already note the dangers of hiring a motorcycle in Thailand. Those specific, accurate warnings could just as easily be part of a global system.

Phuketwan has no undisclosed business interests in the tourism sector, so you have lost your wager. Come to think of it, your subscription is also well overdue.

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SO we go from travel alerts to drowning, do we Ripley? The blanket alerts were a CYA by nanny state Gov'ts scared of litigation if something had happened.

The majority of people who drown here do so as the result of their own ignorance - ignoring the warning flags and going into the sea when it isn't safe.

It seems to me Ripley that the Ed must have bullied you as a child and this is the only recourse you are able to resort to, constantly berating him. Get over it.

Posted by Mister Ree on September 29, 2010 21:16


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