Thai tourism industry again braces for another tough year ahead

The Thai tourism industry is expected to face another tough year, judging from a slow economic recovery in key markets. But stakeholders are optimistic that arrivals will soar from 25 million in 2015 to 29 million in 2016.

The tourism sector accounts for 10 per cent of the economy and the Kingdom has been listed as a top global destination for years. But now the Tourism and Sports Ministry has set 2015 as a year for restructuring and rebranding the country's image in a bid to boost competitiveness.

"The ministry is ready to run a one-year plan to reconstruct the industry and line up fundamentals for long-term growth," Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said.

The ambition is to increase the country's ability to deal with challenges, including tough global competition, since many other countries also consider tourism a key economic driver.

Negative images and perceptions that Thai tourism is cheap also need to change, along with rebuilding the deteriorating environment and other attractions, the ministry believes.

Challenges ahead include the growing number of Chinese tourists.

The ageing society in some key markets could bring an opportunity for medical and health tourism, while the focus will remain on maintaining a repeat-visit ratio of 60-70 per cent and welcoming more free independent travellers.

Furthermore, the new landscape of social media and online travel searches will lead to and shift some big changes both in consumer behaviour and operators' methodologies.

At Thai Airways International, Charamporn Jotikasthira will this year lead a major restructuring of the business model to compete with a tough global environment. Plans have been updated as its clear the economies in Japan, Europe and the United States have not recovered yet.

Moreover, effects of disease outbreaks, especially the Ebola epidemic in East Africa, are flowing directly into the travel industry.

Chanin Donavanik, managing director and chief executive officer of Dusit International, said Thai tourism had no problem with products and services. The one major item bothering tourists was the political scene.

"It should be made sure there are no mistakes arising from this political [environment]," he warned.

Another hotel veteran, William Heinecke, chairman and CEO of Minor International, said a political crisis could hit tourism and renew fears among business travellers coming in for meetings, incentives, conventions or exhibitions (MICE).

Reminders of martial law were also deterring visitors from key markets like Europe and the United States, he said.

Panga Vathanakul, who runs one of largest hotel outfits in Pattaya - Royal Cliff Hotels Group - said political problems had caused tourists to shift to other destinations.

If the government wanted tourists back, there should no internal problems. The improvement of infrastructure, especially transport systems, would also help restore the travel industry.

However, both private and official sectors confidently claim that Thailand remains an attractive destination for tourists from around the world.

This year up to the end of October, Thailand had welcomed 19.7 million visitors, while revenue from inbound travel was Bt905 billion (S$36.4 billion), a drop of 6.5 per cent from the first 10 months in 2013.

In 2015, Thailand is expected to have 25.5 million arrivals, a slight increase from this year's projection and earning total income of Bt1.8 trillion.

International tourism is expected to reach 29 million in 2016 and generate overall revenue of Bt2.2 trillion.

Kobkarn, who was chosen as tourism and sports minister by the military government, has been running a national campaign called Discover Thainess.

Other plans have already been prepared to revitalise the industry, including rebranding and repositioning attractions at provincial and regional sites, aimed at increasing the number of high-spending tourists.

Bangkok will be rebranded and noted for its river cruises, complemented with existing variety products such as shopping, dining, weekend holidays, history and culture.

Pattaya, which is famed as a nightlife and beach town, will be transformed by world-class sports activities and also as a family destination.

Koh Pha Ngan, now known as home to the world's most popular full-moon party, will be turned into a resort based more on "Thainess".

Phuket is targeted as a venue for premium cruises and a destination for MICE, together with beaches and diving.

Nan province in the North is set to become a site for eco-tourism, biking and tourism for older folk.

The Tourism Association of Thailand also plans to promote "12 Must Not Miss Provinces" throughout the Kingdom. The plans are expected to attract more visitors as well as boost awareness for local people.

The establishment of a centre for information gathering and crisis management are urgently required this year, experts say.

In 2013, the average tourist's length of stay in Thailand was 9.8 days, the highest rate among ASEAN nations. Spending per head per trip was also at top level in the region with US$1,400 (S$1,853).