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Asia's star holiday industry loses its shine

KOH SAMUI, Thailand -- As the sun sets on a warm cloudless evening at Mae Nam on the island of Koh Samui, only a few tables are occupied at the beachfront bars.

     Bartenders say that the tourist trade in the past year has been the worst they have seen. Official figures say that numbers rebounded in the first half from a downturn in 2014, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests a further decline in traditional tourists from Europe, the main customers for small bars, is ahead.

     In addition, the composition of the tourist trade is changing quickly and small businesses are hurting badly. Taxi drivers, for example, say monthly earnings have been sliced in half in a matter of 18 months.

     Business people tell a similar story in Thailand's other popular beach destinations -- Pattaya and Phuket. "Pattaya is dead," the head of a travel company in the once-thriving resort town only two hours from Bangkok told the Nikkei Asian Review. He asked not to be named because business is so bad.

     The businessman's company sells two-week packages at the city's four star Ambassador Hotel for $1,000, mainly to Russian, Indian and Chinese visitors. "Two years ago, it was very good, now it's very bad," he added. "In June, we sold packages to just 212 people compared with 3,570 people in May 2014."

     In Phuket, Thailand's biggest and best-known island destination, the high season has shrunk dramatically, according to an Australian hotel and restaurant owner who also asked not to be named. The high season once ran from October to February, but is expected to be limited this year to about seven weeks during December and January.

     The hotel owner's comments echoed those of many others who spoke to the NAR. Outside the seven weeks peak period, rooms can be sold only at rock-bottom prices, he said, adding that income at his restaurant in the high season that finished earlier this year was down 60% compared with the previous year.

     After decades of growth, tourist numbers to Thailand fell by 6% in 2014, compared with the previous year, according to the tourism authority of Thailand. Great hopes were raised in the industry by the subsequent surge in arrivals by nearly one third, or 30.1%, between Jan. 1 and July 12, 2015, compared with the same period a year earlier.

     But in a roller-coaster effect that has characterized the industry since a military coup in May 2014, visitor arrivals could take a further hit after the International Civil Aviation Organization criticized Thailand's air safety procedures in April.

     The ICAO judgment, which was followed by a further safety warning in June, has clouded Thailand's future as a major airline hub and, particularly after a ban on new flights to and from both Japan and South Korea. The warning has also affected many services to and from China.

     Suparerk Soorangura, chairman of the Thai Travel Agents Association, said the impact of the ICAO criticism could widen if other governments decided to block Thai charter aircraft from entering their countries to pick up inbound tourists.

     By most official calculations, Thailand's tourist sector accounts for about 10% of its gross domestic product -- more if the broader effect on employment and local industry are taken into account. However, the country's reputation has deteriorated rapidly following street protests in November 2013 that caused havoc in Bangkok, and related bomb attacks that left more than two dozen people dead. The May 2014 coup brought to power a military junta that has delayed a promised election, now not expected until 2017, further denting Thailand's reputation.

     Tourist numbers plummeted as the country lurched from democracy to authoritarianism, in part because the military's actions invalidated many travel-insurance policies. Television footage of the street protests and of tanks rolling into Bangkok reinforced the impression that the country was in great turmoil.

     The installation of the military also drew attention to entrenched corruption and nepotism. Businesses say the perception of Thailand as a country rife with corruption is not helping the tourist trade.

Tired of corruption

"Tourism in Phuket has collapsed and it is near impossible for small businesses to survive," said another restaurant owner, who also asked not to be named, for fear of bad publicity. "Tourists are tired of the corruption and the bad treatment by some service industries, and [of] being ripped off," he said.

     The restaurateur blamed the government for ruining tourism with spasmodic and often ham-fisted efforts to tackle the country's reputation for rowdiness with initiatives such as beach "clean ups" and alcohol bans.

     The high-profile deaths of two British backpackers -- Hannah Witheridge and David Miller -- in September 2014 on the popular scuba diving island of Koh Tao have added to the sense that Thailand is now a dangerous place.

     Two young migrant workers from Myanmar were detained and charged in connection with the British deaths, but both now say that they confessed under duress and have retracted their statements. The trial of the two workers began on July 8 and a verdict is expected in October.

     The U.K. government is now warning travelers to Thailand that they face a serious risk of financial losses and physical attacks.

     "Violent sexual assaults and robberies against both men and women are reported regularly in the Koh Samui archipelago and Krabi Province," the U.K.'s official travel advice says. It adds: "These are particularly common during the monthly 'full moon parties,' and generally occur late at night near bars." Full moon parties are overnight beach events that often attract thousands of participants.

     More British and Australian tourists die in Thailand than in any other country. The statistics are shocking: 362 Britons died in Thailand in the year to the end of March -- more than in France, which attracts nearly 20 times more British tourists -- according to government statistics. The data show that 120 Australians died in Thailand in 2014 -- more than twice the number who perished in Indonesia, which is a more popular destination for Australians.

     "I have got a girl studying at university and frankly, I don't want her to come to the island," said Deborah Hughes, a hotel manager on Koh Samui, which is Thailand's second largest holiday island after Phuket.

     Once the lifeblood of the Thai islands and mainland beach resorts such as Krabi, the backpacker trade has fizzled out over the years. The junta's ban on all but a handful of full moon parties has made the country even less attractive to this sector of the market.

     "Instead of coming for weeks, even months, they come just for three or four days to each island," said Hughes, adding that the backpackers then move on to other countries in the region such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which are generally less expensive.

     As well as losing the backpacker trade, Thailand is also suffering from changes at the top end of the tourist market. Islands such as Koh Samui and Phuket are now populated with luxury villas that provide for most tourist requirements.

     High-end villas have a pool, or have access to a beach, and often have live-in cooks, so the visitors do not often use taxis or eat out at local restaurants, Hughes said.

     Thailand's biggest tourist group by nationality now comes from China. Like Russian tourists the Chinese tend to buy all-inclusive packages that keep them largely in their hotels or tour buses.

     Chinese tourists do spend money -- last year about 4.6 million Chinese citizens visited Thailand, spending 5,500 baht ($160) per day --  more than the average for European visitors, according to government data. But instead of spending money in bars, eateries and massage parlors, Chinese tourists opt for luxury products in air-conditioned malls and at King Power, the main duty-free retailer, small business owners said.

     Part of the reason for the high spending rate of visitors from China is that the Chinese yuan has strengthened against the Thai baht in the last year. But Thailand is losing its allure as a shopping destination for many tourists from Europe and Australia, and from Asian countries such as South Korean, whose currencies have weakened against the baht.

     For these visitors, holidays in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia have become comparatively cheap, often offering better value.

     In Phuket, the Australian hotel and restaurant owner said that the island was a "business disaster," with many businesses shuttered. "You just need to walk down the streets and [you] see restaurants and hotels closing or trying to sell," he said. 

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