In what will go down as one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in the history of global travel & tourism, the landlocked country of Laos has recorded the largest growth in arrivals to Thailand in the first quarter of 2014 over the same period of 2013.
A sharp growth of 62.8% in arrivals recorded in March alone raised the total figure of Laotian arrivals for the first quarter January-March 2014 period to 331,176, up 39.21% over the same period of 2013, according to figures released by the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports on April 21.
The figures were a major saving grace for Thai tourism arrivals which otherwise sank by -9.39% to 2,104,072 in March 2014 and -5.85% to 6,598,240 in Jan-March 2014. This is due to the continuing fallout from the political crisis that hit the country between November 2013 to February 2014. However, the vast majority of the downturn has been concentrated on arrivals to Bangkok as the first point of entry.
In terms of actual numbers, Laos, a country that is classified by the United Nations as one of the world’s least developed, became the fourth largest source of visitors to Thailand in Jan-March 2014, after China, Russia and Malaysia, overtaking both Japan and Korea. This was up from ninth spot in Jan-March 2013.
The majority of Laotian arrivals would have been overland, via the four Friendship bridges that now span the Thai-Lao border across the Mekong River. While most Laotian visitors would have low average lengths of stay or daily expenditures, they would still have contributed significantly to hotel occupancies in Thailand’s northeastern border provinces.
In 2013, Laos became the seventh country to generate more than one million visitor arrivals for Thailand, after China, Russia, Japan, Malaysia, Korea and India. Given the steep declines in first quarter 2014 arrivals from Korea, India and Japan, it is likely to overtake those countries in the overall annual rankings this year.
The tectonic shift in source markets has gone unnoticed in Thai tourism industry circles.
Speakers at a Thailand Tourism Forum organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in association with C9 Hotelworks on April 21 harped mainly on the impact on visitor arrivals to Bangkok, the growing diversionary business to beach resorts such as Samui and Phuket, and the beneficial impact of low-cost airlines.
Cross-border tourism was not mentioned once.
The growth also testifies to the immense success of the bridge-building projects as critical components of infrastructure development in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, and their contribution to regional trade and travel.
The March 2014 figures have also indicated some other interesting trends about shifts in source-markets, especially during times of crisis:
-- Five of the seven mass-market countries generating more than one million annual visitors all reported declines in March 2014: China -11.06% to 331,638; Japan -26.11% to 101,046; Malaysia -20.32% to 84,233; Korea -11.41% to 85,919 and India -20.71% to 71,518.
-- However, Russian arrivals were up +9.86% to 211,679 in March 2014. This is because most Russian visitors bypass Bangkok entirely and head mainly for the beach resort of Pattaya.
-- Another cross-border country showing considerable promise is neighbouring Cambodia (+5.95% to 40,314). Growing road-linkages with Thailand will see this country also becoming a major source-market in future.
-- From Europe, surprising growth was recorded in arrivals from Finland (+49.25% to 25,897) and Italy (+18.08% to 18,805).
Overall, the political crisis is seeing a major rebalancing of the Thai tourism industry in terms of source-markets, geographic distribution of visitors within the country, first points of entry and means of transport. This will have a significant downstream impact on everything from marketing budgets to product development and investment trends.
Mr Imtiaz Muqbil is the Executive Editor of Travel Impact Newswire. Email: email@example.com Watch Mr Muqbil's landmark TEDx talk on "Peace Through Tourism": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS9HxRaKVSA&feature=player_detailpage