Thais are indeed facing tough times, as recently released figures show that the economy grew by just 2.3% in the year ending in June. Its slowest rate in almost five years, last year the economy expanded by 4.1%, the Chiang Rai Times reported.
Exports are limp because of the US-China trade war and the strength of the baht, the local currency. It has risen by more than 5% against the US dollar this year, making it the best-performing currency in Southeast Asia. Farmers, meanwhile, are cursing the feeblest monsoon in a decade despite flooding in northeastern Thailand.
On top of all that, tourism in Thailand is another source of concern, the report said.
The industry, which has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, generates more than a fifth of gross domestic product. But China’s slowdown and the weakness of its currency seem to be discouraging its citizens to visit Thailand.
Chinese tourists made up more than a quarter of the 38 million foreign visitors to Thailand last year, yet the number of Chinese holidaymakers dropped by nearly 5% in the first six months of this year, a trend that seems to be worsening, the report said.
“I think we are still holding our own,” maintained Yuthasak Supasorn, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. But the strong baht means Thailand isn’t as cheap as it used to be.
Not all the industry’s problems are external. Last year the sinking of a boat off Phuket killed 47 Chinese tourists, horrifying prospective holidaymakers.
Thailand’s roads are also the most dangerous in Asia, despite government promises to improve them. And petty crime is rampant. The head of the Tourist Police in Bangkok recently described the scale of pickpocketing as “unbelievable.”
Another factor in the slowing growth of tourism is overburdened infrastructure. Packed airports with long queues induce a sense of anything but relaxation among visitors. Even beaches are too crowded, the report said.
Last year the government closed Maya Bay, made famous in the film The Beach, to allow its ecosystem to recover. It’s not expected to reopen until 2021.
Thai Airways already loses money and is struggling under more than 100 billion baht of debt. Even so, the transport minister has given permission for the carrier to purchase or lease 38 new aircraft.
Even Thai Airways staff were puzzled about how investing in new planes would help the airline to recover from losses, the Bangkok Post reported.
In May, Thai Airways revealed that it was suffering a US$26.2 million (828 million baht) net loss in the first quarter of 2019.
Another airline in Thailand – low-cost carrier Nok Air – reported a $12.6 million (391 million baht) loss for the first quarter of 2019.
Thailand’s tourism minister believes more should be spent on marketing and incentives to bring back visitors from China and other nations.
In August the government announced a stimulus package of 316 billon baht to boost the economy. Among other measures, it extended free visas on arrival for tourists from countries including China and India.
Thailand also offers 1,000 baht of spending money and a 15% rebate on hotel accommodation to domestic tourists who travel outside their home province.
It’s likely the stimulus package will only help at the margins. In a country riven by coups and political conflict, tourism has succeeded in spite of the government, not because of it.