Tourists turn to safer destinations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 March, 2010, 12:00am

Thailand's anti-government protests have, in recent years, dampened the country's appeal as a tourist destination. Holidaymakers, worried about the threat of disruption and chaos in the capital, Bangkok, are mulling other destinations.

They are looking at alternative destinations such as Taipei, Seoul, Cebu and Boracay, Langkawi and Penang, and Sapporo and Osaka.

'It all depends on the customer's budget and the type of experience they are after.

'Korea and Taiwan are popular for city getaways. Sabah and Langkawi are sought after by those who want a sun and beach holiday,' says Jo Jo Chan, general manager of Wing On Travel Service, one of Hong Kong's largest tour operators.

The latest blow to Thailand's tourism industry came this month as thousands of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's supporters staged rallies in Bangkok, triggering governments around the world, including Britain and the United States, to issue travel warnings alerting people to be cautious and stay vigilant when visiting the country.

In Hong Kong, all package tours to Bangkok were cancelled in mid-March after the government issued a red outbound-travel alert in response to the looming protests.

Travel agents attribute the weaker interest in Thailand to the volatile political situation, aggravated by the recent economic downturn and swine flu.

Wing On Travel says tours to Bangkok fell by almost half in the middle of last year when hundreds of thousands of protesters, demanding the resignation of the government, brought the capital to a standstill. Tourist traffic had, however, fully regained its momentum by the start of this year before this latest disruption.

'People are mainly worried about their safety and concerned that roadblocks and protests might affect their enjoyment,' Chan says.

Bangkok, the hardest hit, has been grappling with a flurry of tourist cancellations, though destinations away from the eye of the storm, such as Koh Samui and Phuket, remain largely unscathed.

Despite these difficulties, Thailand remains one of the most popular destinations for Hong Kong tourists because of its proximity, availability of a wide range of budget options, good food, shopping and relaxation, according to Travel Expert.

Sabina Chan, manager of corporate communications at Travel Expert, says one in five of its customers typically choose Thailand as a getaway. Some 40 per cent opt for Bangkok, 40 per cent for Phuket and the remainder head to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Though travel agents are uncertain about when tourists might resume their plans for Thailand, they remain optimistic the hiatus won't last too long.

Last year, Wing On Travel collaborated with the Tourism of Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways to launch promotional eating tours to Bangkok in an effort to revive tourism.

'Special hotel rates and promotional tours helped the market rebound faster. The tourism industry might have suffered more without these promotions,' Chan says. 'We are planning to do something similar to stimulate the market following these latest protests; perhaps after the Easter holidays when it is considered the low season for tourism in Thailand.'