Thailand's Teflon tour industry to weather floods
BANGKOK—The tuk tuk drivers outside the Holiday Inn in Bangkok's still-dry downtown sit idle, calling to passers-by in hopes that someone, anyone will climb in for a ride in their colorful pedicabs. Fares are hard to come by as the floodwaters creeping ever deeper into the Thai capital have washed the streets of tourists.
Trying times like these are nothing new for those in Thailand's all important tourism industry, and with each new calamity come dire predictions that the kingdom's image and its allure to foreign tourists may be irreparably harmed. But each time it recovers and its beaches, jungles, spas and urban malls are soon swarming with visitors again.
Call it "Thailand's Teflon tourism industry," said Imtiaz Muqbil, the executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, which writes about tourism in Asia.
The past decade has seen Thai tourism -- which accounts for about 6 percent of the economy and employs more 2 million workers -- rocked by crisis after crisis. Among the disasters: The SARS epidemic, a tsunami, a military coup, the occuption by antigovernment protesters of the capital's two airports and multiple rounds of deadly street fighting.
The most recent violence, in April and May last year, ended with nearly 100 people killed and several landmark Bangkok buildings set ablaze, but Thailand had a record 16 million international visitors in 2010, showing how quickly tourism can bounce back -- even from from frightening images of mayhem broadcast worldwide.
The country's worst flooding in half a century, which began in July and has steadily worsened through an epic monsoon season, has killed more than 500 people nationwide and left everyone from street vendors to restaurant owners to hoteliers saying business in Bangkok is down.
"This is high season now and a lot of tourists have just disappeared," said tuk tuk driver Thongdee Thongrin. His business has been cut in half since sections of northern and western Bangkok began to flood two weeks ago.
But as a whole Thailand seems to once again be weathering the latest storm, with tourists still coming but skipping Bangkok and heading south to beach resorts like Phuket and Pattaya or north to Chiang Mai, all of which have been spared flooding.
"The public and private sectors have been hit by so many crisis over the years that they are really good at managing it and have the responses worked out to a T," Muqbil said. "In Boy Scout terminology, they are perpetually prepared and ready with the response and recovery drill the moment it is necessary."
International tourist arrivals at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok's international gateway, were up 6.7 percent in October over last year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Arrivals at Phuket's airport were up 28.5 percent for the same period.
Most international airlines were still operating normally to Bangkok, while domestic airlines have been adding flights due to strong demand from people heading to other parts of the country not affected by the flooding, said Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.
The floods will obviously have some effect on tourism, but the recovery will be quick -- perhaps as short as a month, said Martin J. Craigs, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
"Resilience is built into the DNA of Thai tourism," he said.
Craigs and several others in the industry mentioned that some of the "disaster movie" images going out to the world were not an entirely accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. He said photos of planes sitting in floodwaters at Don Muang airport gave the impression that both of Bangkok's airports were closed.
"Frankly its all down to the old expression: If it bleeds it leads. In this case, if it leaks it leads," he said.
While many key tourist sites and downtown areas are still dry, vast parts of the northern and western outskirts have been turned into inland lakes, submerged by fetid floodwaters that have led to calls for the evacuation of 12 of the city's 50 districts.
Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Suraphon Svetasreni said his agency was working hard to get the word out that Thailand was still very much open for business. He said he hoped the disaster would affect international arrivals by only 2 percent.
While specific numbers are yet to be calculated, the floods "have affected the number of bookings in Bangkok for sure," said Sakkarin Thorsawai, the director of the Thai Hotels Association.
Joey Tulyanond, owner of the Old Bangkok Inn and the soon to open Bangkok Tree House hotel, said "maybe about 80 percent of our guests have canceled even though neither of our properties has seen a single drop of floodwater."
At Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangkok's trendy Thong Lor neighborhood, owner Jarrett Wrisley said he felt lucky to still have a restaurant that was dry and operating when so many others in Thailand had lost everything.
He said his business was off 60 to 80 percent last week, but it has already started to bounce back.
"Thailand, for the past several years, has been in this strange cycle of crisis and rebirth, and I suspect that the country will rebound in a few months," he said. "But first we have to put the pieces back together."
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Alisa Tang contributed to this report.