Will ‘teflon’ tourism always save Thailand?

Visitor numbers continue to grow despite political turbulence

Outside Bangkok’s Grand Palace, a shop selling mini-pineapples is doing a roaring trade. Hordes of parched tourists, nudged along by tour leaders, shuffle along the sidewalks with the northern Thai delicacy perched on a stick.

The visitors’ bright red and orange attire contrasts sharply with the black worn by queues of mourners streaming past them to pay their respects to His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Mourners and tourists enter the same compound seamlessly via different gates, reflecting the pragmatic attitude that keeps the Kingdom’s lucrative tourism industry humming along amid its trials and tribulations.

According to Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), tourists spent Bt1.46 trillion in 2015 and the sector accounted for 11 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product. Even as manufactured exports slumped, the “export” of services – mainly tourism – helped push GDP growth to 2.8 per cent, it said.

Strict laws against defaming the monarchy mean few dared openly discuss their fears for the industry when the government declared a year of mourning after King Bhumibol’s death on October 13.

Many nightlife outlets went silent after the government asked people to refrain from entertainment for 30 days. But two months on, the show goes on, albeit with some tweaks. Usually scantily clad models covered up with long-sleeved dresses that went down to their ankles at the annual Motor Expo last month, for example. And there were noticeably fewer New Year countdown parties, even though Christmas trees were lit up in public spaces and carols were heard in department stores.

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