A sign of easing concerns about physical distancing in Thailand, the Bangkok chapter of Skål International yesterday hosted its first in-person post-lockdown networking slash panel discussion at Pullman Bangkok King Power to examine an issue that is on everyone's mind: restarting tourism.
This time however, hard-hitting questions from moderator and industry veteran David Barrett steered the panelists away from clichés. Barrett pushed his guests to address wide-ranging questions like dumping, threats to sustainability, the return of mass tourism, domestic market potential, and the role of technology in kickstarting business.
Willem Niemeijer, CEO of Yaana Ventures, was characteristically blunt in his assessment of prospects of a prolonged ban on international travel. “I think the future will be very dark if [the borders are] going to be closed for six months,” he observed. “I don't think Thailand could survive, let alone the tourism industry. It would be bringing Thailand back to the 1970s.”
Niemeijer was equally lucid about reaching out to the domestic market, which has been the focus of Thailand's tourism recovery effort as its borders remain closed to foreign tourists. “It's not just dumping prices for no particular reason. You have to go to a lower price point to get the domestic market [and] get some people in the door.”
But IC Partners CEO and American Chamber of Commerce Travel and Tourism Committee Chair Charlie Blocker thinks a "systemic change" is underway, echoing a message hammered home by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Ministry of Tourism about going after high-value tourists. “We've heard them talk quality over quantity before, but that's real religion now.”
That move away from mass tourism leaves at least one unanswered question. “We still have enormous capacity that is under-utilised,” and that will need to be reinvented, Blocker reminded the audience. A this point, “a 400-room hotel should not reopen with 400 rooms; we need to mothball.”
Blocker also pointed to the newly launched Asia Travel Technology Industry Association – backed by Agoda, Booking.com, Expedia and Airbnb – that will work with government authorities on key questions like using technology to facilitate transparency of health requirements between countries as travel restarts.
Christian Stoeckli, General Manager at Diethelm Travel Thailand, predicts that customers will pay for enhanced health measures. “We are sure that consumers are ready to pay a little bit more. International travellers are looking for [health and safety] procedures that they can trust.”
Stoeckli also emphasised the importance of identifying niche markets. “What do Thai people want?” he asked. “Do they want a farm stay? A photo stop? You need to be a little more creative. We're thinking of family holidays, kids' camps, kid stays.”
In conclusion, Yaana's Niemeijer quoted a global behaviour survey that cited worries about security, a trend to more domestic and regional holidays, fewer overseas and business flights and more road trips, all perfectly understandable in the current context.
The catch? The study was published in January 2004, in the wake of the SARS crisis. History shows that those trends did not last.
“Now what is different?” Niemeijer mused.