We're back in business, Thailand tells tourists

A soldier stand guards at a shop at Chatuchak market in Bangkok June 8, 2014.

On an overcast morning, as Bangkok empties out for the long weekend, a tangle of tourist coaches, tuktuks and taxis make a languorous loop around the Grand Palace and other attractions in the ancient heart of the city.

Just two months ago, the area was choked with protesters in a protracted bid to overthrow the Puea Thai government. Sporadic violence frightened away shoppers and left the capital's hotel rooms empty. Now, with the military in charge and quashing any form of opposition, ASEAN's second-largest economy is telling tourists: We're back in business.

"The forward bookings are coming on very well," Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Thawatchai Arunyik told The Straits Times last week.

The return is driven by travellers familiar with Thai politics and unfazed by holidaying in a country under martial law.

One of them is Mr Laurent Casarsa, 49, a sales manager from Switzerland who has been to Thailand about 20 times since 1992. He and his family are back for a three-week holiday.

As to whether he is concerned about their safety after the May 22 coup - the 12th since 1932 - he said: "No problem!"

Thailand has much ground to cover to make up for losses inflicted by the seven-month political conflict prior to the coup.

In May, Thailand hosted 1.74 million visitors, a 10.6 per cent drop from the same period last year.

Hotel occupancy in central Thailand - including Bangkok, the hardest hit by the turmoil - dropped to 46.92 per cent in May, compared with 64.68 per cent in the same period last year, according to Bank of Thailand data.

The Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, which oversees the lucrative conventions, meetings and incentive travel sector, expects the industry to miss its target by 10 per cent this year.

From last October to this March, as the political turmoil grew, revenue from this category fell 12.84 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Mr James Pitchon, executive director of CB Richard Ellis, expects Bangkok hotels to start filling up by the fourth quarter or early next year.

"It's going to take time for those long-term bookings to come back," he said.

"The numbers are creeping up, we just haven't seen it in hotel occupancy yet."

Thailand's administration is being overhauled as the junta reviews questionable projects started by the previous government and removes senior officials aligned with it.

In the meantime, it is also drawing up an interim Constitution expected to take effect later this month, as well as preparing an appointed assembly.

Amid the transitional uncertainty, the Thai authorities are banking on tourism and the travel sector to help power the economy, which the central bank expects to grow by just 1.5 per cent this year.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism and travel industry directly and indirectly contributed 16.7 per cent to Thailand's gross domestic product in 2012.

The junta, while suspending the expansion of overcrowded Suvarnabhumi Airport, has cracked down on mafia-style taxi networks that prey on tourists in resort destinations such as Phuket.

The TAT is promising the "mother of all bounce-back parties" in Bangkok this month and worked with Thai companies to offer travel insurance to overseas travellers who are having a hard time buying such protection because Thailand remains under martial law.

Mr Sakchai Pattarapreechakul, president of NCC Management and Development - which runs the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre downtown - said the stability that military rule brought has helped to convince some 65 per cent of its clients to return.

The rest remain wary of the risks posed by martial law.

"The only thing that we are waiting for now is the temporary Constitution," he said.

That, he said, would be the "best answer" for this hesitant lot.

In May, Thailand hosted 1.74 million visitors, a 10.6 per cent drop from the same period last year. Hotel occupancy in central Thailand fell to 46.92 per cent in May, compared with 64.68 per cent in the same period last year.

This article was first published on July 14, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.