Can Thailand’s tourism industry bounce back from bomb attacks?

Photo: eGuide Travel/CC BY 2.0

A string of bomb attacks in southern Thailand has rocked the national tourism industry and could see massive losses in the crucial sector over the next year. Can the struggling economy recover?

By Claire Heffron

Coordinated terror bombings recently struck tourist areas in seven Thai provinces, including the resort of Phuket; the country’s most popular destination. This is easily the biggest challenge now facing an industry that has weathered more than a decade of instability and violence.

Bombings and targeted assassinations have become a way of life in the southernmost provinces but last month’s bombs were unusually lethal by comparison. Southeast Asia security analyst, Matt Wheeler, said that if militants perpetrated the recent attacks, then the conflict has entered a disturbing new phase. He explained, “now a wider insurgency dangers stoking militant Buddhism and sectarian conflict.”

The government is worried that publicity around the bombings, and the worsening security situation, will put people off visiting when tourism accounts for 10% of Thailand’s GDP.  And the concern is well-placed; revenue from overseas visitors is one of the few shiny features left in an economy that has struggled under the leadership of a military government.

To tackle the problem, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently called for security to be stepped up at popular tourist areas across the country. Explosive detection dogs are now a regular feature on some of Thailand’s most visited islands and beaches. Meanwhile, foreign embassies are still warning visitors to ‘exercise extreme caution.’

Despite improvements in sevurity, the most recent attacks are likely to result in long-term losses around tourist revenue and arrivals, mainly from other Asian countries. Last year 6.7 million people arrived from other ASEAN nations, and before the attacks, the number was expected to grow to 8.3 million. Today the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) claims the country could lose up to 200,000 foreign visitors and Bt10.16 billion in tourism revenue.

Finding solutions

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks, making citizens and tourists feel uncomfortable. The rumour is it was separatist insurgents, and Thai police have only issued a warrant for the arrest of one suspect.  Police have ruled out international terrorism, and critics say Bangkok is trying to play down the political element and characterise the violence as “disturbances” carried out by criminals.

Other experts associate the attacks with Muslim insurgents in the provinces on the southern border, especially as peace talks between the rebels and government have moved slowly. Particular attention has fallen on young activists associated with the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front (BRN), whose leaders have rejected the faltering peace process. Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, said “We have to investigate further to determine whether this group is involved in not.”

However, as the dust settles from the recent blasts, there is some hope on the horizon. Economist Tim Leelahaphan explains the tourism sector may not take the massive hit expected. “We cannot say the situation has fully stabilised. Economically, however, it is not the busy tourist season, while other destinations [beyond Phuket] will continue to attract tourists,” he said.

For their part, the tourist and hotelier associations themselves believe that Thai tourism will recover quickly, and they are working with officials to bring back order and safety. The World Tourism Organization Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai has faith in Thailand’s vibrant holiday sector. He says, “Thailand is one of the most consolidated tourism destinations in the world. A destination where people of all cultures unite and enjoy tourism and its high potential to foster development.”