Lessons from Bangkok's deadly blast

BANGKOK - As investigations continue into last month's bombing that killed 20 and injured more than 100 people at a shrine in the heart of Thailand's capital, an unsettling question remains: Has international terrorism returned in dramatic fashion to the region?

Recent arrests of "foreigners" possibly connected to Turkey or China, however, have renewed concerns that the attack on the Erawan Shrine could have been a response to the Thai government's forced deportation to China of over 100 Uighurs. The Uighurs are members of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China's far western Xinjiang region.

The Thai authorities, for their part, have said that the attack is unlikely to be linked to international terrorist groups.

However, sceptics worry that the Thai government is downplaying international links for fear of harming its vital tourism industry. More than 20 nations and territories have now issued travel warnings or advisories to their citizens on travel to Thailand.

It goes to show that for all of South-east Asia, a focus on strengthened security and basic law and order is fundamental to the sustained growth of the region's travel and tourism sector. Tourism remains a critical and growing contributor to many economies. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.


By some estimates, tourism accounts for nearly 10 per cent of Thailand's economy.

In Singapore, total tourism receipts amounted to $23.6 billion last year, according to the Singapore Tourism Board.

In emerging markets such as Myanmar, the hospitality sector continues to attract not just growing numbers of tourists, but also foreign investment by major international hotel brands.

What are some lessons to learn from the deadly Bangkok blast? Initial investigations were quick to uncover how surveillance cameras in the vicinity were outdated, poorly maintained or simply not working.

For the region, investment in infrastructure is badly needed to raise the level of preparedness for possible terror attacks.

Another area to look at is the increased sharing of information between and among national tourism organisations and other relevant government bodies. The The ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-2020, to be launched in the Philippines at the 2016 ASEAN Tourism Forum, should also address terrorism and other cross-border security challenges such as pandemics and natural disasters.

Safety is of utmost concern for travellers. Cancellations of hotel bookings and flight reservations after last month's bombing bear this out.

According to a survey of 510 travel managers, conducted by travel management firm BCD Travel of the Netherlands in November last year, traveller safety ranks in importance ahead of efficiency, traveller satisfaction, and environmental and social impact.

In recent years, ASEAN has been spared the large-scale terror attacks that South-east Asia experienced more than a decade ago. In October 2002 and then again in the same month three years later, bombings attributed to the South-east Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiah killed hundreds of visitors and residents onthe Indonesian resort island of Bali.

A chill descended across the region's travel and tourism sectors, but Bali and other destinations slowly bounced back as a greater focus on security ensued.

The Indonesian government forcefully cracked down on Jemaah Islamiah. More stringent security standards were introduced and enforced at public places, airports, seaports, hotels and tourist attractions.

Vehicle inspections and surveillance also became standard at many hotel properties in Indonesia and continue to this day.

Since then, the region has experienced sporadic attacks by a mixof individuals and organisations in southern Thailand as well as in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The militant Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, in particular, has captured headlines with the kidnapping for ransom of tourists and businessmen, often ethnic Chinese, in the southern Philippines.


Ten years since the last of the Bali bombings, ASEAN is seeing increasing numbers of travellers, rising expenditure and an evolving tourism mix, fuelled in part by visitors from China.

The emergence of new travel destinations in countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam is also driving the increase.

In 2007, ASEAN recorded 62 million tourists. That number was up by 30 per cent to 81 million tourists in 2011. And, according to data from the Pacific Asia Travel Association, that number reached 98 million by the end of 2013, and continues to grow.

So, how can ASEAN's growing number of tourists stay safe?

Governments must do their part, strengthening public safety and sharing information. But smart travellers must also take steps to stay informed. All visitors should pay attention to information put out by their and other governments' foreign ministries.

Common sense and vigilance also will always play an important role.

As the Australian government succinctly notes in its own official travel advice to citizens travelling to Indonesia: "Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media for information about possible new safety or security risks."

A decade after the 2005 Bali bombing, Australia continues to advise its travellers not to let down their guard.

Will Bangkok bounce back like Bali did?

"Thailand is amazingly resilient and still offers some of the best tourism values in the world," said Mr Kevin Beauvais, CEO of Glow Hotels & Resorts.

The tourism numbers have borne this out. For the last five years, despite some of the worst street violence in Thailand's recent history, Bangkok has continued, along with London, to take one of the top two spots in the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index.

This ranks 132 destination cities around the world in terms of total international overnight visitor arrivals and cross-border spending. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are also among the Top 10 destinations.

In 2006, 13 million visitors visited Thailand. In 2011, despite riots and massive flooding, that number reached more than 19 million. By the end of last year, the number of tourist arrivals had climbed to nearly 25 million.

"In spite of the bombing, Bangkok remains one of the safest cities in the world,"Mr Beauvais said.

"People will always come back for the sun, sand and sea."


The writer, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.


This article was first published on September 3, 2015.
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