War starts to take a toll on Thailand's Russian tourism market
Authorities plan for future crises, looking to new markets and value-added products
Thai tourism faces another obstacle on its path to recovery as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is starting to impact this year's market.
Russia was the top source market for tourists in Phuket during the early stages of the reopening. As of March 7, Russia had plunged to fourth place with 2,763 tourists.
At least 6,000 Russian and Ukrainian tourists are stranded in Thailand because of the abrupt pause of international flights, which has made it difficult for them to return home.
Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, the Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) deputy governor for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, assessed the situation at a webinar entitled "The Landscape of Tourism: Russia Case Study", organised by the Phuket Tourist Association on Monday.
He said even though there had not been many cancellations from other European markets, there were few new bookings as people wanted to wait and see how the situation in Europe develops.
There have been some cancellations from Poland and the Czech Republic, but these were not significant when compared with the wider European market, said Mr Chattan.
However, the assault has prompted the TAT to prepare a plan for future crises, particularly when things come to a halt, whether it be transactions or joint promotions with Russia-based destination management companies that have to wait until international flights return.
The agency plans to participate in the Moscow International Travel & Tourism Exhibition from March 15-17 to keep in touch with business-to-business partners.
NEW PARTNER MARKETS
Thailand needs to seek more markets to compensate for the loss of business from Russia, which is not easy, he said.
Saudi Arabia may have potential, but the market needs more time to grow, as does the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, which is where the TAT is putting greater focus, said Mr Chattan.
He said the TAT recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with airlines, namely Emirates and Etihad Airways, to improve international connections with Thailand.
Phuket tourism operators participating in the webinar said they wanted to see more flights, particularly from Thai Airways, to help carry Russian passengers.
Phuket has welcomed 55,826 tourists since the start of Test & Go on Nov 1, 2021.
Even though most Russians fly with Aeroflot and S7, which have halted international operations, the other half utilise airlines from the Middle East and a few Russia-based services that remain active.
Khanittha Phanworawat, director of the TAT's Moscow office, said Russia's Federal Agency for Tourism advised Russian tourists to travel within the country or to destinations that haven't imposed sanctions against Russia, such as Egypt, India, the UAE and Turkey.
The agency recommended Russians refrain from trips to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela.
However, tour operators are maintaining package deals to Asia and Thailand, especially during the upcoming long weekend for the Russian market on May 1-10 for Labour Day and Victory Day.
Competitors such as Turkey, Egypt and Dubai have quickly adapted to attract more Russian tourists during the outbreak, so Thailand must step up its development of new products and implement storytelling in its content marketing strategy, said Sasiwat Wongsinsawat, Thailand's ambassador to Russia.
For example, the marketing of gastronomy tourism should introduce new products that are more affordable, and not just delicacies such as Tom Yum Kung, as fresh squid is very expensive in Russia, he said.
Long-stay guests offer an opportunity for Thai tourism as roughly 6,500 Russians applied for a long-stay visa last year, generating a healthy volume despite the pandemic, said Mr Sasiwat.
There are an estimated 5.5 million high-income Russians bringing in more than 100,000 rubles per month, or 3.7% of the overall population. If Thailand can lure just 10% of this group, greater tourism growth can be expected, he said.
"The country cannot offer traditional tourism anymore. We have to come up with value-added products to create new tourism experiences," Mr Sasiwat said.
Thailand needs to build a tourism ecosystem that facilitates travellers, such as an app that allows them to use digital money or cryptocurrency, especially when sanctions affect tourist transactions, he said.