Sun, 15 Jun 2003

SARS fears sap life out of Thai tourism

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Bangkok

Wanchai Lerdnirundon does not have much to do these days, except stare out to sea from his deck chair on the unusually deserted beach in Pattaya.

With Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scaring tourists away from Thai vacation spots, there are hardly any takers for Wanchai's 10 boats, which ferry visitors to outlying islands.

"Normally, there would be 100 customers daily. But since March, the best I can get is only one group of tourists per week, or only four to five people," Wanchai, 43, said last week.

He recently laid off 50 of his 60 employees, with those still at work having their wages halved.

"If they can stand the condition, good. If not, they are free to go," sighed Wanchai.

"This whole SARS thing, it's worse than the war in Iraq."

The first vague reports of SARS cases in China and Hong Kong in March fueled a fear of travel throughout the region. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) noted that in March, the number of tourist arrivals dropped about 11 percent -- equivalent to some 300,000 arrivals -- compared to the same period last year.

In April, the situation worsened with a 50 percent drop, and the figure was believed to be 52 percent in May.

The downturn is despite the fact that both the country's cases were contracted outside the country, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Thailand a SARS-free nation.

"This (May) is the worst month we've had," TAT's research and statistics division head Walailak Noypayak told a visiting contingent of Indonesian reporters recently.

"The World Tourism and Cultural Council said that the impact of SARS on Asian countries is five times higher than Sept. 11. If there is no campaign to help recover the situation, we will lose about 30 billion baht (about US$726.4 million)."

Tourism is the second highest foreign exchange earner for Thailand after computer parts. Like most Asian countries, it plunged into the region-wide economic crisis in 1998, but it had an increase of about 7 percent in the number of tourist arrivals.

In 2001, despite the global travel downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks, it recorded a 6 percent gain in tourist numbers.

Last year, it earned 323 billion baht from a total of 10.79 million tourists, 60 percent of them Asians. While the concerted efforts to draw Asian visitors in the wake of Sept. 11 paid off, they backfired when SARS struck Asia first.

Occupancy at hotels in Pattaya and Phuket, for instance, is hovering around 20 percent-30 percent, compared to the usual 75 percent.

Thai Airways has also suffered; as of May 30, the company recorded a decline of 300,000 passengers, losing an estimated five billion baht from April through May.

Passengers were not the only ones afraid of flying. Media reports also left airline crews nervous, and an education campaign was launched, explained Suraphon Israngura Na Ayuthya from Thai Airways' crisis management and operations center.

"Now that the crews are no longer afraid, they are asking to fly. Unfortunately, they can't because their schedules have been reduced as we had to cancel thousands of flights last month."

The airline is looking for alternative destinations from SARS- affected countries by conducting campaigns and promotions for Australia, Europe, India and the Middle East.

Walailak blames some in the media for scare-mongering.

"It's not Asian media, but that kind of media that are more interested in worldwide news..the 24-hour reports where we are all connected by satellite. It makes people fearful..of life."

On the agenda now is bringing tourism back to full health, with a crisis team holding weekly meetings.

The Ministry of Public Health also established a SARS information center, to which airlines, agencies and other parties have to report the latest developments. The center publishes a daily press release updating the situation.

"Whether the press will be interested to use it on that day or now, we still publish it. Or else, we get a lot of rumors and panic like in the previous months," said Supamit Chunsuttiwat from the ministry's disease control department.

In working with the airport, the ministry installed equipment and assigned medical staff to conduct screening at the arrival gates for passengers from affected countries.

"And at least starting June 15, we will also have predeparture screening," Supamit said.

The ministry has set out to strengthen the services of all hospitals in the country to deal with SARS cases. The government has also allocated an additional 600 million baht to help stimulate the tourism industry, with prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra offering compensation of one million baht to anyone who contracts the disease in Thailand.

TAT has teamed up with Thai Airways, the Thai Hotels Association and Association of Thai Travel Agents for a special tour package called "Thailand Smile Plus".

It offers a free-stay night for every one night paid for, as well as discounts of between 20 percent to 50 percent at golf courses, spas and resorts. There is also a lucky draw.

TAT is also promoting the domestic market through its "Unseen Thailand" campaign, and holding road shows in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Thai Airways has made hygiene a paramount focus, with a plan to install the most technologically advanced air-cleaning equipment.

"The problem at the moment is the fear itself, not the disease," Wailalak said. "We must realize that this disease is a fact of life. The media has the important role to tell people that SARS is not as dangerous as we expect."