By Zofia Reych
As the Songkran Festival begins, Thailand expects to welcome 495,000 foreign visitors over the three days of New Year celebration. Known internationally as the world’s best and biggest water fight, Songkran is a favorite among holiday goers. Recent political turmoil deterred many visitors but according to the Ministry of Tourism, this year’s celebration is said to create revenues of around 15 billion baht (US$428.08 million), a 10% increase from last year. If the predictions are correct, it may demonstrate that Thai travel and tourism sector thrives even under military rule.
It has been nearly two years since the National Council of Peace and Order established its rule over the country. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military administration now has to prove that apart from upholding order, albeit through hardline methods, the administration can also foster a stable economy. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra shared his observation that mistakes in areas regarding economic policies will threaten the existing military government.
Thailand’s export driven economy is significantly affected by the recent economic recession driven by slower growth in China and lower oil prices. At the same time, Washington and Brussels are increasingly twitchy over the junta’s human rights violations. Many feel that the current government will not be able to sustain the national spending required to bring about 2.8% growth. One way to shore up the reviving economy is to bolster the tourism economy. This was a promise made by the Federation of Thai Industries chairman, Supant Mongkolsuthree, nearly two years ago.
The political unrest in recent months leading to the coup was a factor explaining the plummeting travel and tourism sector. Notably, foreign arrivals dropped sharply by 20% during the beginning of General Prayut’s administration. A military curfew brought a halt to Bangkok’s nightlife and business in island resorts. But the curfew did not last long. It was lifted after less than a month ‘to boost tourism by Thais and foreigners.
In 2015, Thailand saw significant demographic changes. Arrivals from Russia dropped by nearly a half and from Europe by 15%. However, Chinese, Japanese and South East Asian visitors came in stronger numbers undeterred by the murder of two British backpackers a year earlier and by the dramatic events at the Erawan shrine.
A junta spokesman issued a special statement to foreign tourists: “The government wants all of you have confidence that you will be safe during your stay in Thailand.” As many overseas insurance providers excluded Thailand from their policies, a special bolt-on Travel Shield was developed by the authorities. Yet it is not only the political unrest that may put travellers off booking trips to Thailand.
“Elephants trampling on tourists and tourists having their legs cut off by speed boats, this won’t happen any more”, said Major General Surachet Hakphan, commander of the Tourist Police, referring to recent incidents in a statement to Reuters.
But this assurance might not be enough to attract the high-end travelers that Thailand needs. As the luxury travel market around the globe has been growing twice as fast as the rest of the sector, Thailand risks of losing the opportunity to catch this growth. Officials are determined to change the perception of the country as a budget backpackers’ destination. The military administration is now attracting tourism investors hoping to provide the infrastructure necessary for welcoming the world’s richest tourists.
There are downsides to transforming remote islands into luxury resorts. The rustic Ton Sai Bay on the Rah Leh Peninsula was recently accepted for a major redevelopment rumored to be linked with the MBK Group. Small business owners were evicted from the waterfront and a concrete wall was erected to protect the privacy and peace of the future high-end visitors.
The possible privatisation of the main boulevard caused an online outcry from Ton Sai enthusiasts and it remains unclear whether the development will create jobs for the local community. While the acquisition of land owned by locals for investments was a common strategy employed by the Singapore government during the 1960s, one cannot be sure if the Thai military government has the same amount of goodwill enjoyed by the then prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.
General Prayut’s administration is doing their utmost to maintain Thailand’s image as a tourist paradise and to further develop the travel sector, in order to provide an alternative for declining exports and faltering industry. As foreign media is increasingly reporting on the country’s rapid transformation into a police state, we are yet to see if these endeavours are viable.
For now, it seems that the travel sector is slowly recovering from the unrest. At the same time, the military is tightening its grip, due to growing opposition and any critique of NCPO is categorically forbidden. Backpackers and luxury holidaymakers flock to the idyllic beaches while the army, now given extended powers to arrest individuals requiring ‘attitude adjustment’, continues to impose its authority.
Although Thai business owners do not deserve to be held responsible for the actions of a government with no public mandate, the question of spending holiday budgets on indirectly funding the dictatorship is one that every tourist has to answer for themselves.