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Budget carriers drive Thailand's record visitor numbers

A passenger at Don Muang airport seeks help at a counter of Thai AirAsia, the market leader in Thailand for budget airlines. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

BANGKOK -- When the refurbished Terminal 2 building reopened at Don Muang airport, north of Bangkok, for the New Year holiday rush, teething problems were expected. Among those causing headaches for Phet Chan-charoen, the airport's general manager, were the crowds waiting at immigration counters during the busiest hours at sunrise and sunset.

     But the crush of people highlights a milestone passed by Don Muang in the first half of 2015, when it overtook Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport as the world's largest low-cost carrier airport by passenger numbers, according to the Sydney-based Centre for Aviation. The airport handled 14.4 million passengers in that period, with 13.4 million traveling on low-cost flights. That compares with 15.7 million budget passengers in the whole of 2014, when Don Muang was the world's 20th busiest LCC airport.

     Don Muang's growth spurt has also catapulted it past the busiest LCC airports in Europe and North America -- Spain's Barcelona-El Prat and Las Vegas McCarran International in the U.S. Don Muang has room for further significant growth: the airport currently handles 650 flights a day, but has enough capacity for 950, said Phet.

     Much of the growth is due to increased numbers of foreign tourists, particularly from China. But it also reflects the rising use of Thailand's growing LCC fleet by Thai travelers. "Domestic fares have come down, more and more [and] Thais are flying instead of taking buses or trains," said Brendan Sobie, chief analyst at CAPA.

A Thai poses in front of a giant poster of sunflowers at a tourism fair to promote less visited parts of the country.(Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

     A glance at the blue screens announcing departures at Terminal 2 bears this out. Travelers can take late afternoon flights from Bangkok to 11 provinces by selecting from 20 budget flights that depart every hour. Routes to second-tier travel destinations, such as Udon Thani, in the northeast, compete for passengers with Phuket, the southern resort island that is the crown jewel of Thai tourism.

     These extensive LCC options underlie a Tourism Authority of Thailand plan to promote growth in regions that have not received many travelers. Tourism, which accounts for nearly 10% of Thailand's gross domestic product, is the only industry thriving in an otherwise gloomy economy. In 2015 Thailand attracted a record 29.8 million tourists.

     Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya were ranked as the top three Asian destinations for international travelers, according to the MasterCard Asia Pacific Destination Index 2015. Bangkok attracted 21.9 million visitors, who spent $15.2 billion, followed by Phuket, which saw 9.3 million tourists spending $8 billion, and Pattaya, where 8.1 million visitors spent $3.1 billion.

     The concentration of tourism spending has not been lost on travel industry officials, who are looking for ways to expand the tourism footprint to less explored areas. Somkid Jatusripitak, the deputy prime minister, recently outlined plans for a drive designed to "create new destinations through a storyline to encourage travelers to explore new places."

     The tourism authority recently hosted a three-day fair in a park at the edge of Bangkok's business district to highlight the attractions of the country's second-tier travel destinations. Visitors posed for pictures with large posters of flowering trees, a mermaid rising from the sea, and the dancing troupes that are seen in the less known parts of the country. These were all part of a "12 Hidden Gems Plus" tourism campaign to encourage travel to 24 relatively unknown destinations.

Bypassing Bangkok

The LCCs are playing a key part in this, with Thai AirAsia, the market leader, opening up new domestic routes that avoid Bangkok. It recently announced that it would launch a direct service from April between Hat Yai in southern Thailand and Chiang Rai in the north -- the latest addition to eight domestic routes that bypass Don Muang. The announcement came after Thai AirAsia added U-Tapao Rayong-Pattaya International, an airport near Pattaya mainly used for military purposes, as its fifth domestic hub. The extension was intended "to increase our connectivity to Thailand's eastern region due to its accessibility to [the coastal provinces of] Rayong, Chantaburi, Chonburi, as well as Pattaya City," said Tassapon Bijleveld, chief executive of Thai AirAsia.

     The growing network of air routes challenges perceptions that the Thai tourism industry is in trouble. Such predictions were made following political riots in Bangkok in 2010, a devastating flood in 2011 and a military coup in 2014. But the industry rose to new heights after each temporary dip in tourism numbers: for example, visitor numbers dipped to 24.8 million in 2014, down from 26.5 million in 2013, before recovering to record levels last year.

     There were fears of a possible drop in foreign arrivals after a bomb attack on Aug. 17, 2015, at the popular Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok, where 20 people were killed, and 125 were injured. Some of the dead were Chinese tourists. But a 10% drop in hotel bookings in Bangkok -- with many cancellations from China -- was short-lived. To the surprise of many diplomats National Security Council officials said the attack was not an act of terrorism -- a declaration described by one Asian ambassador as an attempt to "protect the tourism industry."

     Tom Sorensen, a hotel and tourism expert at the Thailand office of Grant Thornton, an international business consultancy, said Thailand's political stability since the 2014 coup had contributed to a strong rebound in the hotel and tourism industries. "This is borne out in the remarkable rebound in tourism numbers we are seeing at present," Sorensen said.

     But potential problems remain. The ruling generals are under pressure to improve Thai aviation safety standards following damaging downgrades last year by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

     The aviation watchdogs said Thailand's national aviation authority had failed to meet international safety standards. Included in their list of red flags was the arbitrary manner in which the former Department of Civil Aviation, a Thai aviation body dissolved after the coup, had awarded Air Operator Certificates, which allow airlines to fly, to no fewer than 60 Thai-registered LCCs.

     Efforts by the DCA's successor to raise aviation safety standards have been undermined by a bureaucratic turf war. Tassapon expressed the frustration felt among LCC executives after the FAA's downgrade in December. "The Thai aviation industry should focus on recruiting qualified and certified specialists for the [DCA's successor] and, secondly, the re-certification process of AOC permits," he said.

     This is a call that needs to be heeded if Don Muang airport is to continue growing, and if the ambitions of Thailand's tourism authorities to tempt tourists onto new routes using Thai-registered LCCs are to take off.

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