Thailand faces a major uphill battle in maintaining the flow of visitor arrivals from Australia in the face of a slow economy, weak Australian dollar, a huge domestic tourism campaign and extensive competition from neighbouring destinations.
Although dozens of Australian tour operators and travel agents turned up for the roadshows held by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne last week, the director of the TAT's regional office, Silachai Surai, said he had to be realistic in acknowledging that market conditions are not ideal.
Most of the Australian buyers came hunting for deals. Mr Silachai said there was a general consensus that the Songkran riots in Bangkok were a thing of the past and had little impact on the high levels of confidence that Australian travellers have in Thailand.
TAT figures showed that Australian arrivals to Thailand were up 5.6% in 2008 to 694,905. But they slumped significantly in the first quarter, with a 20% year-on-year decline in arrivals at Suvarnabhumi Airport to 97,053.
Korakot Chatasingh, Thai Airways International's general manager for Australia, said that a combination of global and local factors meant that this year's targets were going to be very difficult to meet.
He said the weak Australian dollar and the economic situation had prompted Australians to shift toward shorter, less expensive holidays and stay closer to home. In that sense, he said, Thailand offered the perfect option and that THAI was aligning itself with the TAT's Value for Money promotion.
He said the Songkran crisis had resulted in "only a very low level of cancellations".
"The Australians are now looking for good deals. They are staying in lower-category hotels and preferring to use the money for shopping. In February, we started putting out the promotions for early-bird bookings for July, which is normally the high season for outbound travel to Europe. This year, the pickup has been much lower than normal. It appears there is a wait-and-see attitude."
Mr Korakot said THAI's marketing strategies had changed accordingly. Although the airline's roughly 40 flights a week to Australia cannot be cut, largely because TG also carries a lot of the Star Alliance traffic through Bangkok, it is now concentrating on traffic from the Indian subcontinent, especially student and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) traffic, and the surrounding Mekong region countries.
On the outbound sector from Australia, there is additional emphasis on attracting tourists to Thailand and then fanning them out to the Mekong countries.
European traffic via Bangkok was once a very important part of the overall TG traffic mix but has been significantly affected by massive capacity dumped by Middle East airlines. Emirates alone has about 80 flights a week from Dubai into Australia, some of which go via Bangkok. Qatar Airways is also due to inaugurate flights via Qatar next month.
Also affecting on outbound travel from Australia is a major domestic campaign by Tourism Australia, built around a specific theme designed to get Australian workers to use some of their 123 million days of stockpiled annual leave, equal to $33 billion in wages. Called "No Leave, No Life", the campaign targets both employers and employees with information to help win the work-life battle.
"If holidays go unused due to the pressures of the workplace and personal constraints, this will ultimately have a flow-on effect to our domestic tourism industry," said Tourism Australia managing director Geoff Buckley. "If we can unlock some of this leave and get people to use it to holiday in Australia, it would be of great benefit to our $65-billion domestic tourism industry."
At the TAT's Australian roadshow, the newest product being promoted is the city-Suvarnabhumi Skylink, which will be a bonanza for hotels located near any of the stations.
Martin Landolt, general manager of the Ramada D'MA Pavilion on New Phetchaburi Road, showed off his updated hotel brochure kit, now complete with a map indicating the three-minute shuttle bus from his property to the Makkasan terminal.
Another opportunity to generate publicity for Thailand will come when the Australian Society of Travel Writers holds its annual general meeting and awards from Aug 21-23 in Bangkok. About 800 delegates are expected. The event is being heavily supported by the TAT and THAI with free pre- and post-conference tours to Isan, Kanchanaburi and Thai beach resorts.
Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mailed feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.