Why is Thailand going through yet another dry Songkran?

Why is Thailand going through yet another dry Songkran?

Government is concerned infections could rise as people return home for celebrations

A Thai elephant splashes water during a procession as part of the Songkran celebrations at Safari World. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
A Thai elephant splashes water during a procession as part of the Songkran celebrations at Safari World. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Splashing has been banned during Songkran for a third consecutive year, frustrating some tourism operators. The decision was based on an increase in Covid-19 cases.

Why did the Thai government prohibit a wet Songkran this year?

The Thai government said the country needed to maintain stringent social distancing measures during the festival, including a prohibition on water splashing and other celebrations associated with the holiday, such as powder smearing. It was decided that these activities increase the risk of contracting Covid-19.

Activities such as sprinkling scented water on Buddha statues, pouring water on the hands of elders in seeking their blessing, and other activities at temples are allowed. All organised events must be in a Covid-free setting and seek permission from appropriate agencies first, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) said.

What is the estimated tourism spending for Songkran this year?

This year Thailand's domestic tourism spending during the Songkran festival is forecast to remain lower than in the pre-pandemic era, generating around 11 billion baht from 3.34 million trips nationwide, with an average hotel occupancy of 41% during April 13-17. This is an improvement from last year's Songkran festival, which generated around 6 billion baht from 1.6 million domestic tourists.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said most Thais would be returning to their hometowns, while some travellers were more likely to choose nearby destinations within driving distance as they wanted to minimise expenses and exposure during the festival.

The Northeast, which usually sees a high number of returnees for Songkran each year, is poised to have 754,380 visitors generating 1.3 billion baht, followed by the central region, which should see 735,166 trips generating 1.4 billion baht, said the TAT.

Eastern Thailand, which is famous for seaside destinations close to Bangkok, is expected to draw 560,980 visitors and generate 2.3 billion baht.

Meanwhile, the southern provinces are expected to host 445,399 domestic trips, but expenditure during the extended holiday will be the highest at 2.78 billion baht.

TAT governor Yuthasak Supasorn said even though water splashing and entertainment festivities are not allowed, the TAT will be hosting traditional events at three destinations -- Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Songkhla -- that could generate 2.1 billion baht in tourism revenue from 568,580 participants.

Bangkok remains the most popular destination by province, mostly based on one-day trips, followed by Chon Buri, Nakhon Ratchasima, Phuket, Kanchanaburi, Phangnga, Ayutthaya, Udon Thani, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Nakhon Nayok, according to the TAT.

What has been the response of business operators in Bangkok and Chiang Mai?

Sa-nga Ruangwatthanakul, president of the association of business operators on Khao San Road, said the Thai government failed to take full advantage of pent-up travel demand among international visitors.

He asked the government to reduce travel restrictions and requirements that make it difficult to travel to Thailand.

"We think the Thai government did not seize many great opportunities for the tourism sector, especially for well-known celebrations such as Songkran or the 2021 New Year celebration," said Mr Sa-nga.

"The association wants harried business owners to have every advantage possible to stay afloat the past two years and going forward to have a chance to make a living."

He estimated businesses on the famous Khao San Road would be able to generate no more than 10 million baht per day over Songkran. This is in stark contrast to the pre-pandemic era, when businesses in the area generated 50 to 70 million baht a day.

The official Songkran holiday period is April 13-17. Songkran Day is April 13.

Chiang Mai, which is usually a popular destination for holidaymakers and has been reclassified by the CCSA as a blue zone for tourism since April 1, is also prohibited from holding a wet Songkran.

But La-Iad Bungsrithong, president of the Thai Hotels Association's northern chapter, said despite such a decision, the April occupancy rate amongst hotel operators in Chiang Mai has gone up compared with the previous two years.

"The average occupancy rate for April this year is 30-35%," she said.

"This is much better than in 2020, when the rate was 0%, and in 2021, when it was 10-15%. From April 10-17 this year in Chiang Mai, the average occupancy rate is 50%."

Mrs La-Iad said businesses and hoteliers understand the circumstances and have worked together to attract tourists with other activities, including sprinkling water on Buddha statues, experiencing northern Thai culture and exploring the mountainous landscapes.

How do people feel about the dry Thai New Year?

The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's (UTCC) latest survey found that spending during this year's Songkran festival is expected to fall by 5.4% to 107 billion baht.

The tepid mood stems from sharply rising oil prices ignited by the Russia-Ukraine war and relatively high Covid-19 infections in Thailand.

"People remain worried about the high cost of living, particularly as it is driven by rising oil prices and persistent Covid-19 infections in the country," said Thanavath Phonvichai, UTCC president.

Mr Thanavath said the UTCC remains optimistic the economy can achieve growth of 3-4% this year, although many research houses have cut the country's economic prospects to only a 2.5-3% expansion this year.

Meanwhile, Shane Francis, an American software engineer from New York who often visited Thailand before the pandemic, told the Bangkok Post he longed to holiday in the kingdom again, especially over the Thai New Year.

"I think it is unfortunate the government opted for a dry Songkran this year," said Mr Francis.

"I love to see the joy on people's faces during the celebrations, and I feel that the Thais could benefit from some joy and excitement given the impact Covid has had on many during these past two years. However, I understand that safety is key."

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