At least until recently, tourism has been the third most important sector of Thailand’s economy, after agriculture and exports. Among ‘industries,’ tourism is listed in first place. The country is without doubt one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations, in part because of its magnificent natural beauty (of many varieties, not just the famous islands), in part because of the natural friendliness of its people, in further part because of the relative ease and safety of traveling in Thailand, which is easily done on both high and low traveler personal economies.
This situation is now in considerable flux, and concerns about the viability of Thailand’s major tourist industry are growing. Currency fluctuations and new economic policies have put a significant dent in exports as a source of GDP, and increasingly severe and unpredictable weather – primarily floods and droughts – throughout the country are an increasing concern to its agriculturalists.
Those changes make the viability of Thailand’s tourist industry all the more important. While the country has so far survived threats to the industry such as SARS, bird flu, and the 2004 tsunami relatively intact, tourism officials and operators are only too aware that a more large-scale bird flu epidemic or another tsunami (in a region where earthquakes in Indonesia such as the one that caused the one in 2004 are increasingly frequent) could have a devastating effect on the industry.
Additionally, the relocating of the country’s main airport, an expansive new facility called Suvarnaphumi planned by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to make Bangkok the ‘hub of Southeast Asian travel’ has been a only slightly mitigated disaster for the country and the source of considerable national shame. Hurried construction, corrupt construction practices, and overall bad planning have yielded a facility many find far inferior to the 95-year-old ‘old’ airport in Don Muang, for which longtime Thailand visitors had developed an affection, and which worked with seasoned efficiency. The new airport is daily news nationally, with alternating reports about its safety (primarily of the runways) and inconvenience. It is much farther out of the city, making it much more difficult for tourists to get to their Bangkok destinations and to others on their travel itineraries.
There are great fears among observers of Thailand’s tourist scene that it will take just one more major problem such as the ones described above to drive tourists to seek other travel destinations in Asia and elsewhere. The effects on Thailand’s economy would be devastating if tourism were to drop even a small amount.