The quality conundrum

The quality conundrum

The head of the largest low-cost carrier in Thailand thinks the virus should prompt a refocus on tourists with deep pockets rather than quantity

Tassapon Bijleveld
Tassapon Bijleveld

The head of Thailand's largest low-cost carrier thinks the country's tourism strategy needs a rethink following the outbreak of the highly contagious virus.

"When confronting the historic crisis emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand must reconsider its tourism strategy if it wants to keep the economy afloat while avoiding the risk of a second outbreak," said Tassapon Bijleveld, executive chairman of Asia Aviation (AAV), the largest shareholder of Thai AirAsia (TAA).

All aviation was grounded during the lockdown and TAA could not fly its 60 aircraft.

Amid ongoing uncertainty over inbound regulations, Mr Tassapon said this is a golden opportunity for Thailand to start fresh with a new tourism target geared towards the quality of tourists rather than quantity.

"The post-Covid-19 strategy should shift to creative ways to build a sustainable industry," he said.

Thailand is famous for its natural resources, especially sea-sand-sun destinations in the South that contribute some 40% of TAA's revenue, said Mr Tassapon, adding that returning to the same strategy will be insufficient.

Though the outbreak has had lethal consequences, one positive is it has allowed the country's natural resources to rejuvenate, he said.

"When tourism returns with social distancing practices, it will be an opportunity to set limits in terms of carrying capacity at each site to preserve nature and select the quality of tourists," said Mr Tassapon.

For instance, Phi Phi island in Krabi province should consider a quota of up to 1,000 tourists per day, down from 3,000 prior to the outbreak, he said.

Mr Tassapon also suggested Phuket, one of the provinces generating the most tourism income for the Thai economy, should be developed into a duty-free island like Langkawi in Malaysia, or become a new destination for tax-free shopping like Bicester Village in Britain.

"A new positioning of the province would increase income sources and stimulate tourist spending, which should support more local employment," he said.

Thailand should also streamline its value-added tax refund process for tourists, because if the experience is more convenient, they are more likely to spend more on trips, said Mr Tassapon.

He said man-made attractions such as full-sized theme parks in the Northeast should be another focus for the country following the pandemic, particularly in provinces that have airports ready to disperse the flow of tourists from natural sites. Theme parks can attract more tourists to visit regions without magnet attractions other than annual cultural festivals.

"The impact from this outbreak is temporary," Mr Tassapon said. "Once vaccines to combat Covid-19 are developed, everything will eventually return to normal, but with new conditions for people to protect themselves."

The pace of recovery for Thai tourism will take around two years, or until 2022, to reach the same level of 2019, some 40 million international tourists, he said.

TAA projects to gradually resume all domestic flights by next year, when the airline industry should be in better shape, but travel demand will not quickly return until two to 2½ years, said Mr Tassapon.

On June 15, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand allowed airlines to operate both domestic and international flights without leaving the middle seat empty, except for the last three rows in cabins for passengers who show flu-like symptoms during the flight.

He said people are now protecting themselves from exposure to the virus, wearing face masks, washing hands, and practising physical distancing, unlike in the past when dealing with other airborne diseases such as Sars or H1N1 influenza.

There have not been any reported infections on jets, as most modern aircraft are equipped with hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air filters to prevent virus spread onboard, said Mr Tassapon.

The current 14-day quarantine required for inbound travellers is impractical for tourists and has to be lifted for bookings to increase, he said.

TAA is considering creating a new department responsible for safety and hygiene, including disinfection procedures on aircraft and for passengers' baggage, as well as checking passengers' temperatures, said Mr Tassapon.

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