By Ron Bernthal
Despite the recent military coup in Thailand, tourism to the country continues to surge, and that includes business and convention travelers who seem to feel that Thailand, even under military rule, is less threatening than some countries with an elected democratic government.
“Although most hotels in downtown Bangkok experienced some cancellations, business was back to normal within days,” said Sorrakom Chalinrat, Marketing and Communications Manager of Bangkok’s InterContinental Hotel. “There were really no problems for us at all during this period, the situation seemed totally under control and we are now back to our normal high occupancies.”
In the hotel’s Club Lounge, high atop the city, business travelers sat in small groups near floor-to-ceiling windows, snacked on sushi and spoke quietly into cell phones. Well-dressed couples, Western and Asian, had returned from shopping trips to nearby Central World Plaza shopping mall, and relaxed in the lounge’s air-conditioning. Outside the windows, and far below the stratospheric ambience of the Club Lounge, the city spread for miles, baking under a grey heat haze, the silvery modern trains of Bangkok’s fabulous SkyTrain monorail system tooling around the city like a child’s toy.
No military tanks or armed soldiers were seen in the streets. No demonstrations against the new government were evident. The only sign of national unity were the pretty yellow shirts that Thai men and women were wearing, in honor of King Bhumibol’s birthday. If a Martian landed in Bangkok, ignorant of recent political events, he would see a city of about 9 million people going about their business in peace and harmony, although with traffic jams that may send him back to the sanctity of his spacecraft.
With a vibrant economy, great cuisine and shopping bargains, and perhaps the best nightlife in Asia, tourists are flocking to Thailand in record numbers. Recent statistics from the Pacific Asia Travel Association show that visitor arrivals from Russia to Thailand increased 138% in the first half of 2006, there was a 131% increase in Chinese travelers to Thailand, and a 90% increase in visitors from South Korea.
Americans are also targeting Thailand for Asian trips. In a summer, 2006, Conde Nast Traveler magazine reader survey, Americans chose Bangkok as their favorite Asian city, with Chang Mai, another Thai city, as number three. Several deluxe Bangkok hotels, along with the Thai island of Phuket, also scored high in the survey.
A major factor affecting tourism to Thailand is, and will be, the success of Bangkok’s new Suvarnaphumi International Airport (pronounced su-wana-poom), the second largest airport in Asia, which opened with just minor delays on September 28th, 2006, right on schedule despite the political uncertainties in the region. The glass terminal building is huge and strikingly modern, with a duty-free shopping area that more resembles a Western-style shopping mall. The airport’s control tower is the tallest in the world, and a new high-speed rail connection to downtown Bangkok is already under construction.
“We have had no service disruptions at all,” said Mr. Wit Kitchathorn, Thai Airways General Manager, Northeastern USA. Thai flies to Bangkok with non-stop service from New York and Los Angeles, and has been flying with packed flights for several years now, due to the increasing popularity of Thailand as a tourist destination from the States, and the steady commercial business for U.S. companies operating in Southeast Asia.
“All of Thailand is interesting to visit for Americans, and we see many tourists making repeat visits to the country, electing to spend more time in the pristine Northeast region of the country, near the border with Laos,” said Ms. Juthamas Siriwan, Governor of the Thailand Tourism Authority. It is true that despite all the negative images that Thai tourism officials have had to deal with in the past several years, including some cases of bird flu, coastal areas severely affected by the tsunami, and the recent military coup, the country has been receiving more tourists than ever before.
“Our long-haul routes from LA and New York have been really good, especially this past year as Thailand celebrates His Majesty King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary to the throne,” said Mr. Kitchathorn. The Thai King is the world’s longest reigning monarch, and there have been numerous celebratory events throughout the year to commemorate the anniversary.
It seems that none of these past problems have diminished the striking beauty of the Thai landscape, or affected the gracious hospitality of its people, who welcome guests with genuine smiles, exuding a warmth that matches the country’s sultry climate.
IF YOU GO
Contact: Tourism Authority of Thailand
61 Broadway, #2810
New York, NY 10006
(611 North Larchmont Blvd., 1st Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90004
Airline: Thai Airways
60 East 42nd Street, #3120
New York, NY 10165
(222 North Sepulveda Blvd., #100
El Segundo, CA 90245
Where to Stay in Bangkok:
Inter-Continental Hotel, Siam Square www.bangkok.com/intercontinental- deluxe.
Holiday Inn Bangkok, moderate www.bangkok.com/holidayinnploenchit