It was good to be back in Bangkok again, feasting on my favourite eats and seeking out new places to satisfy my always-hungry senses.
It was also good to see the smiles back on my travel friends’ faces and hearing them say, “It’s slowly coming back” although how many times they’ve said that in the last two years about business, I’ve lost track and I am sure, so have they.
So you can either feel sorry for them or admire their resilience and optimism – and it’s the latter I’d rather do.
Certainly, the Dusit Thani Bangkok was a hive of activity. Lots of screaming girls at the entrance everyday – I thought they were there for me but turned out one of the Korean pop band Super Junior members was inhouse and with K-pop sweeping teendom across Asia, well, the girl mob was out in force.
(Picture shows view of the city from Dusit Thani hotel)
Prime Minister Ying Luck was also at the hotel twice during my stay, but I think she had fewer mobs and lesser security than Mr Super Junior.
The mood is hopeful and guarded. Thailand has declared a new tourism campaign called “Miracle Year” with a budget of US$203 million. Already jokes are going round saying, it’d be a miracle if nothing happens.
This is a weary nation. They’ve been through a lot. The floods in the last quarter of the year not only affected business but personally impacted many working in the travel industry.
Agoda’s CEO Robert Rosenstein told me that 170 of his staff, whose homes were damaged, stayed in hotels in the city for up to a month. Shangri-La’s general manager Thierry Douin said that close to 300 of his staff were affected – homes damaged or lost – and all were offered sanctuary in the hotel.
There are many stories like these that make you feel proud of these employees who, despite their personal problems, still showed up for work to look after their guests and travellers.
The Thai government says it will work on a four-year tourism strategy with the private sector to restore confidence in Thailand and prepare the country for the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.
The prospect of a single ASEAN economy with the promise of a free flow of goods, services, capital and labour across the 10 countries in the regional bloc is keeping hopes high, and tourism officials are busy thinking of how they need to prepare for this eventuality.
Proof that Thailand is a resilient and attractive destination is in the figures. Despite the troubles it’s been through, its arrivals in 2011 grew 20% to 19.1 million. East Asia is fuelling most of the growth, so expect more attention to these markets.
And suddenly, Myanmar is making the news for all the right reasons this time. The government is promising a new open approach, elections are due in April with The Lady being allowed to openly campaign, Western countries are liftiing sanctions, and incentives are being offered for foreign investment in 11 hotel zones.
The number of foreign visitors passing through Yangon International Airport rose by 21.8% last year to nearly 360,000, according to news reports. More than two-thirds were from Asian countries, led by Thailand with 59,010 visitors, followed by China with 32,757.
With demand surging, there is a serious lack of inventory so expect lots of developer interest in this country that once had the busiest airport in the region. I just hope land grab will be controlled and rules put in place to ensure tourism assets are not trampled upon by developers eager to get their hands on this last crown jewel of Asia.
On the flight back to Singapore, a headline screamed, “Gold rush to Myanmar as country opens up.”
I didn’t know whether to be excited or afraid.