CNY bookings soften for travel to Bangkok

BANGKOK - As political tensions continue in Bangkok, travel bookings to Thailand out of Singapore appear softer this Chinese New Year, which coincides with the Feb 2 snap polls slated to take place in the troubled capital.

In line with weaker demand, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is scaling back capacity by cutting 19 flights over a six-week period starting from Jan 14. The airline, which typically operates five flights daily to Bangkok, is giving affected passengers the option of a refund or being put on a different flight.

“(The protests) have definitely created an impact on the upcoming Chinese New Year period as most of (those who) have not booked their holidays will not take the risk to visit Bangkok in view of the prolonged political turmoil,” said Alicia Seah, marketing communications director at Dynasty Travel, adding that bookings to Bangkok over Chinese New Year have dropped by 50 per cent. “If the political situation does not improve by early February, we forecast a decline of about 70 per cent (in travellers) to Bangkok for Q1 2014.”

Travel demand is also typically more subdued when Chinese New Year falls fairly close to the year-end holidays, as it does this year.

Meanwhile, Chan Brothers Travel reported that bookings to Bangkok are still coming in for the upcoming festive season, “albeit slower”. The tour and travel agency has nearly 100 customers departing for the Thai capital that week, which is comparable to last year, it said.

The strong Singapore dollar vis-a-vis the Thai baht is one reason Thailand remains a popular destination, noted CTC Travel. But those eschewing Bangkok in favour of other Asian destinations are opting for Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, or even other parts of Thailand, travel agents said.

The anti-government protests erupted over two months ago after the Puea Thai party – headed by caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – tried to implement a bill that would allow her brother, exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to the country. The opposition party, which is pushing for political reform, is boycotting the February elections with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowing to “shut down” Bangkok on Jan 13 to force the resignation of Ms Yingluck’s government.

The turmoil has hit the baht and the Thai Stock Exchange hard, with the former losing ground against the greenback for a record 12th day yesterday as it sank to 33.01 baht, while the benchmark SET closed at 1,224.62, down a further 0.5 per cent.

Last month, the anti-government protests took a more violent tone and culminated in a handful of deaths, prompting some cancellations, postponements and rerouting of travel plans. Dynasty Travel saw 20 per cent of the 250 travellers headed to Bangkok in December cancelling their trip or diverting to other cities, while Chan Brothers registered a 20 per cent drop in travel to Bangkok compared to December 2012.

“The general feedback is that while there have been some cancellations, people are still travelling to Bangkok,” said Anita Tan, chief operating officer of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas). “Knowing how to deal with emergencies that may arise and how to avoid problematic areas give (travellers) the necessary peace of mind to continue with their travel plans.”

Travel agents have been advising travellers to buy travel insurance, as well as to steer clear of hotspots where the protests have been taking place.

While 2013 figures are still being crunched, nearly 824,840 visitors from Singapore went to Thailand in the 11 months spanning January to November 2013, according to Thailand’s Department of Tourism website.

Despite the political impasse, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is projecting that Thailand will see a total of 26.1 million tourists for 2013 as a whole, resulting in tourism revenues of 1.149 trillion baht (S$44.1 billion). This would represent an increase from 22.3 million tourists in 2012 and spend of 960 billion baht.

For the period January to November, international tourist arrivals to Thailand already hit 24.13 million, up some 21 per cent year-on-year.

TAT’s deputy governor of marketing communications, Sugree Sithivanich, maintains that the impact from the political demonstrations on the tourism scene will remain minimal, despite the impending elections.

“The demonstrations have most (of) the time been held in a peaceful manner, and have not affected most tourist attractions and activities in Thailand,” stressed Mr Sithivanich in an e-mailed response yesterday.

Get The Business Times for more stories.