The Airport Situation – A Tourist’s Perspective
Hello fellow Stickman readers. I’m a frequent visitor to Thailand and I have been following the present troubles there with great interest and a growing sadness… and anger. I’d first like to thank the writers who have given their views
on these matters, Sawasdee2000, Bangkok Barry, Mr Anonymous, PG and of course Stick himself in the latest weekly column. These guys all seem to live in Thailand or have a very close relation to it. I’d like to share my view which is that
of a tourist.
First of all it takes a while for us back in Farangland to grasp the scope when something like this happens. It was the same during the Tsunami, the first reporting that Christmas in 2004 merely made you raise your eyebrows a bit, like: “A big wave huh? That sucks”. Then as the next few days passed it became increasingly evident that this was in fact a major catastrophe of enormous proportions.
The same is true for this airport siege. We’ve heard reports of previous protests but, at least in my country where many people travel to Thailand each year, this has been accompanied with assurances that it’s “limited” to the parliament area and does not really affect tourists. Myself, reading this website and having a somewhat keener interest on all things Thai have known all along that this has been a half truth. Sure it’s been “limited” but there’s been no resolution of the underlying strife forthcoming and there’s always been the chance for escalation. It seems it has now escalated.
Even with this in mind my first reaction to the airport siege was: “Crazy Thais, they took their protests to the airport, well now they’ll get some attention, that’s for sure”. I still thought of this as a protest when it is in fact an illegal siege of vital infrastructure. Some of the first reporting was of a woman who was desperate to leave with her husband and two small kids. She was in tears and I thought to myself: “C’mon, it’s not that bad. So you stay a day or two longer, what’s the big deal?” Of course I’ve never travelled to Thailand with kids, never had anyone to take responsibility for but myself.
It took a few days again for me to grasp the magnitude of this. I started doing the numbers. 100K + passengers per day are supposed to go through Suvarnabhumi. Where do they go now? What of all the people who were going there? This is the high season after all, people would be on their way to Thailand in huge numbers. I hoped that they would start using Don Meuang to relieve some of the pressure and then I heard it was also closed down and it settled on me, this is really, really bad!
This weekend I had dinner with some friends including a couple who are scheduled to go to Thailand for the first time in mid December, with their two young children. The airport siege came up and the woman commented that thank god it wasn’t in Phuket where they’re heading but that they were a bit nervous already. I bit my tongue but another dinner guest replied “well it was in Phuket last time, in August, so I wouldn’t be too sure it can’t happen there again”.
The look in her eyes said it all – they won’t be going there! No way. I assume they are on the phone today, Monday, cancelling or rebooking their holiday. I can’t blame them. I might have taken the chance and went myself, but again I don’t have kids. There goes their holiday as it was planned and there goes maybe 300K baht in income for Phuket's tourism industry. Not a major blow on its own but multiply it with a couple of tens of thousands of others who are in a similar situation and it’ll sting. Really sting.
The thing is that this season looked bleak anyway. I see how many people here in the West have been shook by the current downturn in the economy. Tourism to Thailand stood no chance of retaining its growth from previous years. It’s been booming for a long time and would inevitably have to settle, or face a decline, with this economic downturn. It was inevitable, and we all know it.
Faced with that the focus should have been strong on really promoting Thailand to lessen the blow on the tourism industry as much as possible, because tourism is very important to Thailand. I am aware that those who say Thailand depends entirely on tourism are wrong. I know it’s about 6 – 7% of GDP. Still, that’s a huge part. In most developed countries 4% growth is considered very good while 1% is very bad. That’s a span of 3% of the GDP so to say an industry representing 6 – 7% isn’t incredibly important is to fool oneself. Also it’s a labour intensive industry creating a lot of low income jobs. If tourism slumps these jobs disappear and many are left without employment. Hardly what you’d like in times of unrest is it? A few hundred thousand, or more, pissed off people with no means of supporting themselves. (On with those yellow or red shirts and hit the streets!)
So the focus should have been strong here. An all out effort made to preserve the image of Thailand as a friendly and safe place with lots of reasons to visit. And I’m not only talking about the TAT here. I’m talking about the entire industry. The general attitude that really needs improving. That would have been welcome.
What do we get instead? The complete opposite is what. Chaos striking directly at the tourists themselves in terms of their comfort and finances and perhaps soon, although let’s hope not, their safety. This is really bad. This is a deal breaker.
The deal was that we arrive with a lot of money to spend and in return we get a great holiday in a place with decent facilities, good value for money, a nice climate, a friendly atmosphere and safety!
The safety is paramount. The lack of safety is what severely wounded Brazil's booming tourism industry in the 70’s. Of course the parallel isn’t crystal clear as the safety issues there were different, but the reality is that what is causing un-safety is not at all important but that the feeling of un-safety in itself is unacceptable. People will rather go to a country with a repressive regime as long as it’s considered safe than to go to an unstable democracy.
It seems to me that the protesters either cynically don’t really give a shit about the chaos they’re creating or that they fail to understand the consequences. Perhaps both? Perhaps they don’t understand and wouldn’t give a shit if they did? I mean a sign from the PAD in English at the airport read "Or only aim is to fight this government until the PM resigns. If in doing so we have caused you any inconvenience we sincerely apologise."
Could as well have been written:
“Sorry that you have to put your lives on hold while we perform a coup d’état on our democratically elected government. We hope you think nothing of it. Please come again.”
It’s like a hostage taking bank robber who tells you that his only aim is to get the bank's money and a free passage from the cops, that he’s not really out to hurt you. Well, I guess that’s better than if he really wanted to hurt me but I’m still not that happy with him taking me hostage.
Do they understand the damage they’re inflicting on their country? Don’t they know that the impact will be both severe and long lasting? Have they unknowingly upped the stakes to a level where they have passed the point of no return, or have they done this knowingly?
Either way it’s scary. The most scary thing so far is the appearance of “the reds”, who I’ve never heard of before late last week myself. There’s now a faction who might do what the police or military should but won’t do and against whom the yellow faction will surely fight back savagely. A confrontation in the middle of Bangkok or at the airport between yellow and red and you can kiss the entire high season goodbye. I mean it will be not just a bad season but a dead season. Dead!
The world is watching. Significant bloodshed between what can best be described as two different citizen militias would lead to every foreign affairs ministry in the developed world putting Thailand on the no-go list, and every major travel agency would follow suit. Think of the footage. Yellow against red in street fights caught on camera. It’ll be hard to say the problems are “limited” after that. My point is that as bad as it is already it can get a hell of a lot worse.
The people involved need to disarm this situation pronto because they are presently dragging their own nation into financial disaster. I’d say they’re dragging it “kicking and screaming” but that’s not what I see. They’re dragging what looks like the stiff corpse of their nation into this disaster, without it resisting beyond some post mortem twitching.
I would consider myself a very resilient traveller. I’m in good shape with no illnesses, I’ve been around a lot, I can take care of myself without making stupid newbie mistakes and I have finances enough to get out of situations like the one we see now. I guess I’d get myself down to Kuala Lumpur or get a quick visa to Vietnam and go via Cambodia to Saigon and home from there. Make an adventure out of it and chalk up the extra plane ticket as bad timing.
Yet even I am having doubts now. I’m due over there in mid-late January. I’ve not yet booked my flights but was just about to. I still hope this settles down so I can go, because I really want to, but I’ll be watching carefully. Just because I could get myself out of a sticky situation if one arose it doesn’t follow that I want to knowingly throw myself into one. I’m not stupid.
And if I’m having second thoughts then what about those who are not practised travellers? What about those with families and kids to take care of? They’re gone. Forget them already. What is at stake now is more than that. What is at stake is if the more resilient travellers will also cancel and kill the season completely. Also at stake are next year’s season, and following seasons after that. Those are the stakes and they are high, very high, and rising from day to day.
I hold my breath and hope this will blow over one way or another. I do this for selfish reasons primarily because my winter holiday is important to me, but also for Thailand and her people who have so much to lose and who do not yet see this.
Most are predicting that the fall out from this will be huge. It will be interesting to see. Most money seems to be on the fact that the naughty boy will continue to come for they are a resilient bunch but the families – the very holidaymakers Thailand has been trying to draw – will choose to go elsewhere.