Thursday, 20 May 2010

Has Thailand’s image been tarnished forever?

Thailand’s carefully crafted image as the “Land of Smiles” seems to be in tatters. For many years now, millions of people have flocked to Thailand to take in the sights and sounds (and smells) of Bangkok, the beautiful beaches and national parks. All of this backed up by the famous Thai smile and the, erm, unending kindness of the Thai people. While many hardened travellers have long since seen past that “smile” the image of the Land of Smiles lived on.

That is until the events of the last couple of months unfolded which exposed to the world the deep rifts in Thai society that have been simmering away for many years now. At its simplest level, the mass of rural poor (not to mention urban poor) rose up to protest against what they see as an illegitimate government, a puppet of the military and made up of elite, wealthy people. It’s a lot more complicated than this in reality and no easy fix exists. If the government called an election now (as was demanded by the Red Shirts) they’d lose. In the past the Thais have looked to their King, the great Bhumibol Adulayej to step forward and resolve a crisis such as this. However, his health is a cause of great concern and he has been hospitalised for many months (long live the King and may he make a swift and full recovery).

Add to this the ongoing (and now seemingly forgotten) troubles in the far south and you have a cauldron ready to explode. Will it result in full on civil war? Some would say it already has. When does a protest that got out of hand and the army shot on its own people to “restore peace and order” become a civil war? Red shirt splinter groups going around Bangkok setting fire to shopping malls, offices and TV studios with people inside. When does this stop being just “unrest” and become civil war?

Thailand’s image as a tourist hotspot and entry point into South East Asia has guaranteed it top-slot in the international news bulletins over the last couple of months. Various Foreign Offices have advised against travel to Bangkok and Thailand in varying degrees. Travel insurance is difficult to obtain and will cost you a fortune.

Even if things were to return to normal in the next few weeks, how long before people consider Thailand safe to go to again? I think, if things do calm down again, visitor numbers will soon start to pick up as Thailand still has all those great things to offer. However, people are going to be much more wary about visiting a destination previously thought of as safe and it won’t take much for people to change their travel plans, especially families travelling with kids (like me!).

Keep an eye on this situation as it unfolds, there are so many factors at play here….oh and did I mention Thaksin??!!

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