A slice of Thai paradise all to yourself
Recent airport demonstrations combined with the economic downturn mean that usually packed resorts are relatively deserted and there are deals to be found
In mid-December, I was standing on a white sandy beach on the Thai island of Koh Samui, getting ready to take a dip in the crystal-clear sea. The deepest blue sky and gently swaying palms provided the exotic backdrop to a perfect day, but not everything was as it should be. The beach was empty.
"We had a very slow December," said Craig Douglas, the general manager of Sala Samui which, located on Samui's Choeng Mon beach, is the kind of luxury villa resort that Thailand has become famous for and which, at this time of year, would normally be packed. "Occupancy picked up over Christmas and New Year but forward bookings aren't looking so great. We're putting together some special offers and should get through OK, but there has definitely been a downturn."
The effect of the 10-day occupation that hit Bangkok's two main airports from late-November to early-December is now slowly filtering through the entire circulatory system of the Thai tourist industry. For each empty luxury villa, the knock-on is a cleaner laid-off and a farmer who can't sell his produce. The reality on the ground for the hundreds and thousands of Thais who work in the nation's huge tourist sector is stark with some analysts, such as Global Travel Industry News, predicting that up to one million Thai tourist industry workers could lose their jobs due to the combined effects of the deep global recession and the airport occupations. Only time will tell if the grimmest predictions come true but the immediate consequences have been serious.
While the airport occupation was in full swing, I was visiting the popular capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, and the direct results of the kingdom's political upheavals were immediately apparent. Reliant almost entirely on connecting flights from Bangkok, the normally bustling streets were empty, and you could almost sense the fear. "Because of the wider economic downturn, we've just had one of the quietest low-seasons on record," said David Unkovich, an Australian ex-pat who has worked in Chiang Mai's tourist sector for 25 years. "To follow that with a high-season like this will put a lot of people out of business." The tuk-tuk drivers I spoke to voiced similar fears: "No tourists come here, many people lose their jobs," said one; while the Thai concierge at one of Chiang Mai's top hotels told me that occupancy rates were lower than for a bad day in the quietest part of the year. "Only about 15% of our rooms have guests," he said. "It's terrible."
Yet to paint an entirely negative picture would be inaccurate. While the luxury resorts and five-star hotels have been hard hit, the best-managed parts of the independent traveller sector have been robust. Take the popular Mut Mee guesthouse in the atmospheric Mekong River town of Nong Khai in Thailand's Isaan region, located far from the usual package tour destinations of Bangkok, Samui and Phuket. "We had a slight drop during early December when the airport was closed," says Mut Mee's British owner, Julian Wright, "but we are now fully booked again. On the days we have availability, we are filling up easily. Most of our guests - who range from young backpackers through to middle-aged, middle-income independent travellers - are pretty fearless and quite comfortable with changing circumstances."
And it is clear Thailand's political instability is far from over. The new government of Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva is dogged by uncertainty. A second wave of demonstrations have taken place in Bangkok and while another airport occupation seems unlikely, other factors, such as a 30% devaluation of sterling against the Thai Baht and a fire at a Bangkok nightclub on New Year's Eve, which resulted in the deaths of 59 people, including several foreign tourists, are hardly creating a positive image of Thailand with overseas travellers. Over the past few weeks, the usually tourist-choked Sukhumvit and Khao San roads in Bangkok have been appreciably quieter, with some visitors to the Thai capital reporting an almost eerie atmosphere.
Thailand's tourist industry is now slowly shaping its reaction to all of these events. Several of Bangkok's largest five-star hotels reveal that while almost none have dropped their walk-in prices, UK operators have started launching some offers. "We are beginning to see an influx of fantastic deals from both hoteliers and airlines to Thailand," says Ben Briggs from Travelmood. "For example, we now have a week's beach holiday in Pattaya from just Â£549 [which represents a deal of seven nights for the price of five]."
Trailfinders says it has lots of deals coming through. For example, you can get seven nights for the price of four at the five-star Sala Phuket Resort and Spa, for Â£1,169pp, representing a saving of Â£500pp. In addition, Trailfinders is offering return flights with Thai Airways from London to Phuket for Â£528 (inc taxes) - the same price as direct flights from London to Bangkok, meaning that the internal domestic flights are thrown in free.
Kuoni is offering savings of up to Â£3,000 on a six-night holiday in the Six Senses Destination Spa in Phuket in March - it now comes in at Â£2,131pp. And you can get three nights free in the Grand Millennium Sukhumvit hotel in Bangkok, in May, in a deal which costs Â£632.
While UK travel agents and tour operators might be trying to sound upbeat it's clear that Thailand's best hotels are being hit. "Business levels have reduced by around 30-40% throughout all major hotels in Phuket," says Frank Grassmann, general manager of the Evason Phuket & Six Senses Spa. "The demonstrations and airport closure in Bangkok came at a critical time. Many guests redirected their Christmas holidays to other destinations such as Malaysia but reservations are now starting to come in again at a slow but steady pace."
Bizarrely, given all the troubles of the Thai tourism industry, the Thai immigration service has decided to reduce the number of days of a tourist visa from 30 to 15 for those crossing into Thailand from a neighbouring country - severely hindering Thailand's role as a regional hub for long-stay tourists visiting neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Yet, Thailand, for all the right reasons - excellent value, stunning locations and friendly people - is still likely to remain popular with British tourists. Choose to visit now and you could experience the kingdom at its best - the palaces and temples of Bangkok are relatively deserted. And, if you get to the beach, you could have a slice of paradise all to yourself.