Don’t you dare touch Aerothai

Over the past few decades, very few industries in Thailand have seen unprecedented growth. One of them is tourism, an industry that has grown by leaps and bounds despite the region’s ups and downs.

Tourism has been a key revenue generator for many countries in the region, be it Cambodia, Myanmar or Laos. For Thailand, the industry makes up about 10% of the country’s GDP.

Thailand is a great example of how well the tourism industry can be managed. With a population of just over 65 million, Thailand welcomed 26.7 million visitors last year. About 60% of them were visitors from East Asia, while 24% were Europeans.

Arrivals grew by 19% in 2013 after rising 16% in 2012. The average increase was 12% from 2004 to 2012.

This is a big achievement compared to 1997, when total tourism arrivals were a mere 7.29 million.

Thailand acts as a hub for the region, especially Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where a joint visa for the region implemented in late 2012 and early 2013 gave visitors greater flexibility in the management of their travel plans.

Last year Thailand raked in 1.17 trillion baht in tourism revenue and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expects revenue to rise to 1.35 trillion this year. The authority expects about 30 million visitors this year.

This is a tall order considering the ongoing political situation in the country and the various threats to shut down the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai), a move that would close Thailand’s airspace to all kinds of flights, a far worse scenario than the shutdown of Suvarnabhumi airport in 2008. That shutdown was one of the few times since the TAT started tracking arrivals when numbers fell, dipping to 14.46 million tourists. The impact of the closure lingered and it was two years before arrivals grew again, reaching 15.9 million.

That figure for 2010 was high despite the crackdown on anti-government protesters that claimed nearly 100 lives. It indicated tourists have a high tolerance for political protests but not disruptions to airports or tourist attractions. Natural disasters such as the tsunami in late 2004 also do not seem to have an impact on tourist arrivals.

But the goal of attracting 30 million visitors (nearly five times the figure during the 1997 economic crisis) would be shattered if the protest leaders in Bangkok cannot control the breakaway faction under the banner of the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform.

Although the network said the seizure of Aerothai is a last resort, the very fact that such an unthinkable act is even on its mind has already scared away tourists.

I have received many calls about how safe it is to come to Thailand. I have been advising friends to stay away from the country because nobody wants to be stuck here without a way back home. After all, not everybody has as much free time and little work to do as these people who are on the streets day-in, day-out.

The senseless statement by the network that they still intend to carry out their plan to shut down Aerothai would shoot their own country in the foot.

Thailand’s key export sectors of electronics, cars, garments and food are all witnessing a decline as stable revenue is sacrificed on the gallows for the sake of politics. Hotel occupancy in Bangkok is in the gutter, and the entire country’s occupancy would nosedive if Aerothai is shuttered.

Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos would also likely feel the pinch because of the stupidity of a few people who claim to know a lot but don’t look at the implications of their actions.