Thailand’s lure for tourists is powerful. The “land of smiles.” The beaches. The temples. The mountains. Amazingly friendly people.
But Thailand also has had a military government since a coup in May that ousted a democratically elected government and now Thai tourism is in the dumps. Tourism arrivals are down about 20 percent compared to last year.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand is now fighting back with a new message, though perhaps it failed to run it by a focus group: “Martial law tourism.”
The Tourism Authority “is preparing a campaign called ’24 Hours Enjoy Thailand’ to attract foreign tourists to visit under martial law,” the authority’s governor, Thawatchai Arunyik, told the Thai Rath newspaper.
He went on to say that martial law is actually good for tourism because it ensures foreign tourists can be safe 24 hours a day.
“We want the tourists to be confident that they can travel in Thailand both day and night with safety at all times,” Thawatchai said, adding that he hopes to promote this concept by creating a “buzz” on social media.
What he didn’t mention is that social media is closely monitored these days for any anti-coup sentiment. Under martial law, public gatherings of more than five people are now banned, soldiers can detain individuals and search their property without warning, and a 1914 law gives the military wide-ranging and extraordinary powers, including the right to try dissenters in military court.
Many of the tourists that have been coming have been pleasantly surprised by some of the military’s self-described attempt to “restore happiness to the Thai people.”
The junta has cracked down on the mafias operating in popular beach destinations such as Phuket and Pattaya. It has cleared the beaches of scam artists who preyed on visitors looking to rent jet skis or who simply wanted a place on the sand and were told they would have to pay for it.
Despite these efforts, tourism has not picked up since the coup and a number of high profile crimes since the military takeover that haven’t helped.
In September, two British backpackers were murdered on the popular southern island of Koh Tao. Last week, a Danish tourist was sexually assaulted near Pattaya.
All these factors have contributed to the big drop in tourism, a key part of Thailand’s economy. The Australian government, for example, has issued a travel advisory.
“We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Thailand due to the possibility of civil unrest and the threat of terrorism attack,” Australia says.
Sisdivachr Chewarattanaporn, the president of the Thai Travel Agents Association, says martial law is definitely part of the problem, according to The Nation newspaper.
“Foreigners are still unsure about their safety in the country and feel uncomfortable about coming here at a time martial law is in force,” Mr Sisdivachr told the newspaper. His solution?
“The only way to return confidence would be to lift this law,” he added.
So far, the Thai military has shown no willingness to do so. But high season for tourism is approaching in a country where tourism accounts for about 7 percent of the economy. And economic growth this year, according to the World Bank, will be the lowest in the region at less than 2 percent.
And spare a thought for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Remember, they don’t wear uniforms. And they’re trying awfully hard to make lemonade.
Michael Sullivan reports on Southeast Asia for NPR and runs the blog mouthofthemekong.com