THAILAND - The year 2014 will be a challenging period for the tourism industry. Government officials and private-sector executives agree that the top concern is political instability.
The political landscape is different from the old days, they caution. This time no clear way out of the conflict is visible, which means it could drag on well into the first quarter of the new year.
This lack of clarity has already started to cast a cloud over the tourism industry, as it is feared that foreigners will choose to take their vacations elsewhere, especially those who have never been here before.
"If this situation carries on into 2014, of course the hotel industry will get hit in the first quarter. Travellers will start changing their plans to come here," said Dr Ronnachit Mahattanaphreut, senior vice president for finance and management of Central Plaza Hotel, operator of the Centara Grand hotel chain.
The question right now is: "Is the tourism industry still a hero that can save the country at a time when the national economy is facing a slowdown?"
Caretaker Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong has acknowledged that tourism is an important industry and a key driver of the national economy. Currently, tourism revenue makes up more than 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. However, prolonged political demonstrations risk damaging the country's image as a tourist destination.
Charoen Wangananont, honorary secretary general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), argued that tourism could only play the role of hero in the short term. In the long term, all parties must work more cohesively to stabilise the industry, especially with consistent government policy.
Charoen has proposed setting up a programme to reform the industry. Tourism associations would be the hosts for this task and would work with the government to promote the industry's sustainability. Important factors would be concerns for the environment and tourists' safety.
One of the highlights would be to crack down on rampant corruption. The industry has long lost billions of baht to state employees and politicians. The system should be made more transparent with creation of checks and balances. Clearly, a lot of tourism revenue has gone into different hands without anything to show for it.