Operators banking on huge discounts
Outbound tour operators are offering extraordinarily cheap tour packages to South Korea and Japan as a way to cut losses from the coronavirus outbreak amid fears that returnees could carry the virus back home.
The last-minute deals, known as Pro Fai Mai (burning hot packages), require customers to make a quick decision if interested in the extremely deep discount. After purchase, they must rapidly pack and go on the trip within a few days or immediately.
"These packages are tools for surviving during a tough time," said Thanapol Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA). "Heavy discounts on the selling price mean that operators are already in trouble. They would rather cut losses at any price than lose all their investment."
But he said the strategy may not help amid the coronavirus outbreak because most packages are for high-risk countries like Japan and South Korea.
Two returnees from a trip to Hokkaido were confirmed to be infected with the virus on Wednesday.
Mr Thanapol said Thai authorities never issue directives prohibiting people from travelling to high-risk destinations.
The Pro Fai Mai packages become available when airlines allow independent travellers to postpone, reroute or cancel flights but don't apply the same rules to group tickets purchased by tour operators.
Some tour companies also face a double difficulty in dealing with hotels that refuse to return the deposit.
When the travel date planned for a tour group approaches, the tour companies have no choice but to offer cheap packages as a last-ditch bid to avoid losing all their money.
There are also customers who already booked packages in advance and have to continue as planned because they cannot get a refund when airlines still operate under the same schedule.
"Even though we proposed plenty of measures to the government, there have been no concrete plans since the start of epidemic at the end of January until now," Mr Thanapol said.
Anake Srishevachart, honorary adviser to the TTAA, said tour packages are at the lowest prices he's ever seen. For example, the Hokkaido tour to Japan is now available for 9,000 baht.
To his surprise, some customers have insisted on purchasing Korean packages for as little as 3,000 baht despite serious warnings from Thailand's Public Health Ministry.
Mr Anake said wholesalers and retailers will attend a meeting hosted by the Tourism Department today to devise solutions to the problem.
The first round of meetings between tour operators and low-cost carriers last week ended with requests for airlines to extend the deadline of new seat allocation from June to the end of the year, as tour operators are concerned that the virus impact will linger.
Meanwhile, Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn proposed a compromise on the issue: airlines can allow group tours to postpone their trips, but operators must inform airlines about new date bookings in advance.
It's impossible for the ministry to stop any group from travelling to high-risk destinations, he said, unless those countries decide to shut themselves down like China.