ASIA

Thai-American Businessman Says Travel Warnings Are Overblown

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Thailand, politics, unrest, political violence, tourismAnti-government protesters travel atop a bus near the Interior Ministry building that is being surrounded by fellow protesters in Bangkok Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Anti-government protesters travel atop a bus near the Interior Ministry building that is being surrounded by fellow protesters in Bangkok Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

One of the most prominent American business executives in Thailand has complained to foreign governments that “unnecessarily severe travel advisories are… having a major impact on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country.”

William Heinecke, the chairman and chief executive officer of Minor International, a leading tourism operator in Thailand, made the remarks in an “Open Letter to Foreign Ambassadors” published Friday in the Bangkok Post.

The letter from one of the best known foreign businessmen in Thailand is a further indication of the deepening woes for the tourist industry as a result of the ongoing protests aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

It is hard, however, to blame foreign travel advisories for Thailand’s problems. Thailand looks shakier by the day. With shootings, grenade attacks, and rising anger a daily reality in parts of Bangkok, it is easy to understand why tourists in Europe or Hong Kong might think twice before heading to Thailand, even if the protests have had little impact on beaches and bars.

On Friday, a caravan of some 700 trucks and tractors headed for Bangkok’s main airport to protest about overdue government payments from a controversial rice-subsidy scheme. Amid fears that they would block the airport, they called off the action at the last minute when one of their leaders said the government had promised to pay them next week.

Heinecke, who is a naturalized Thai citizen, said he was appealing to embassies to lay off the warnings on behalf of his “40,000 employees and those whose livelihoods depend directly and indirectly on tourism — one of the vital drivers of the Thai economy.” He argued that outside “certain parts of Bangkok,” the “country is safe to visit.”

He said “travel warnings and restrictions issued by some foreign governments incorrectly dispel this fact.”

Heinecke’s company controls such well-known brands as Four Seasons, St. Regis and JW Marriot in Thailand, along with numerous restaurant and clothing brands. He said the country has the “best tourism infrastructure in Asia which provides livelihoods for millions throughout the country.”

The issuance of travel warnings by embassies is often criticized in many countries because it can dent tourism revenues and create a feeling of worsening crisis in times of turmoil. In the case of Thailand, however, the warnings seem reasonable in a situation fraught with deep uncertainties over a potential coup or possible widespread violence from an impasse provoked by the opposition.

“These unnecessarily severe travel advisories are now having a major impact on the livelihoods of Thai people across the country,” Heinecke said. He cited government figures showing that tourism arrivals in January dropped by one million from the same time last year. He said the Tourism Council of Thailand “quantified the revenue loss as 22.5 billion baht.”

What went unsaid in his letter was that the crisis could be eased if Thailand’s opposition Democrat Party and its allies in the streets and in the opaque halls of the Bangkok elite and the royal palace were to call off the protests and agree to abide by election results that have given victory after victory to Thaksin and his proxies for years, despite his overthrow in a 2006 coup.

“Travel advisories play an important role in our overall safety and security,” Heinecke wrote, “but they can also have an unnecessarily negative impact on the livelihood of others when they are not completely based on reality.”

He said that tourism ministry officials should work with embassies to “re-examine the severity of their travel restrictions and to revise their travel advisories to focus only on the very limited pockets of Bangkok that are affected.”

Hong Kong, for example, has issued a “black/severe threat for Thailand (Bangkok),” urging its citizens to “to avoid all travel to Bangkok.”

Australia said on Wednesday that its citizens should “exercise a high degree of caution in Thailand due to the possibility of civil unrest.” The US government last week warned Americans “of the potential risks of travel to Thailand, particularly Bangkok, due to ongoing political and social unrest.”

If anything, the alerts seem reasonable. It is almost impossible for anyone to predict how and when the current crisis will be resolved and a degree of legitimate government will be restored. That makes it reasonable to think twice about visiting, regardless of how nice the beaches are.

In this situation, the problem is not with embassy warnings, it is with Thailand’s ruling classes and their inability to find a solution and abide by the rule of law.

For powerful businessmen like Heinecke, it might be wise to address an open letter to the protest leaders and urge them to fold up their encampments and respect the ballot box.

Heinecke also took the familiar tack of blaming the media for aggravating the crisis with “sensationalist headlines and scenes” that do not give  “a balanced view of the protests that we face in Bangkok.”

“Bangkok is open for business and visitors are warmly welcomed across the capital,” Heinecke wrote. That is no doubt true but the slump in tourism and other business is a self-inflicted wound.

Blaming the messenger is a familiar response to crisis. It rarely offers a way forward.


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