Bangkok – here I am. But where are the others?

Written by admin on December 19, 2008 – 12:34 pm -

During Thailand’s highest tourism season of the year, the lack of tourists makes Bangkok feel somewhat eerie. After arriving at the vast 563,000 square-meter Suvarnabhumi International Airport yesterday, we didn’t have to wait in long lines to clear customs.

The airport, which opened in 2006, is the second largest in the world and was slated by the government to be Southeast Asia’s major hub handing up to 45 million passengers per year.

But that’s not going to be the case this year because the airport was shut down by protestors. People were stranded in Bangkok and others were forced to bypass the country completely. Tourists have been blocked and diverted.  Many people have canceled their travel plans to the region.

After the airport’s reopening, airlines flying in and out of the airport have cut flights and planes aren’t flying at capacity. But now that I’m here, there’s zero feeling of danger. Our itinerary was a victim of the airport’s closure and we were diverted to Singapore before continuing to Laos.

It seems safe to return and there’s lots of room
Bangkok, “the City of  Angels” is filled with upscale and architecturally dramatic and inviting hotels. It’s estimated room occupancy is down by approximately 70%.

The country’s lucrative tourist industry accounts for up to 12 percent of the country’s GNP. Tourism experts state that the long-term effect could be very damaging to Thailand’s economy.

As December is the country’s high season, the lack of tourists isn’t simply a blow to the hotels and hospitality industry but to retailers as well. Residents from this region traditionally come to Bangkok to do their Christmas shopping. Stores cater to all tastes and budgets.

Deep discounts abound
Already there are deep-discounted sales in the toniest of shops. A walk through the Bangkok’s famed Night Market is distressing.

Contrasted with my last visit, there was a sense of depression visible on the faces of the vendors. One said that between the airport’s closing and the downturn in the economy, she wondered whether or not things would ever be the same.

Rather than negotiating for a pair of $10 pants, (and that’s always been a part of the give and take), it was easier on my conscience to pay the full asking amount.

Twenty-four boutique hotels and eleven travel agents have launched a “One Price for All Destinations” campaign to spur domestic tourism. The package features special room rates of 2,000 baht ($60) per night per person, including accommodations, breakfast and dinner plus airport transfers.

The participating hotels are in Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Pran Buri, Krabi, Chumpon, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Samui and Koh Phangan. Bookings are open both for Thai and foreign tourists booked now until Feb 28 allowing eligible stays until June 30th. Normally these boutique hotels would cost about 5,000 to 6,000 baht ($150-$180) per night.

Thailand’s resorts are quiet and now is the time to snag a deep-discounted luxury villa you could never have imagined affording.

Even medical tourism is suffering
Medical tourism has become a viable and growing industry in recent years. People from all over the world are checking into private hospitals and clinics for essential procedures as well as tummy tucks and other cosmetic procedures. But, even that side of tourism has suffered; at least in the short run. One plastic surgeon said his clinic’s business has taken a dramatic drop.

It’s sad to think that Travel & Leisure magazine conducted an online poll where Bangkok was picked as the best vacation destination city. And now, it’s begging for visitors. If only I could stay longer and enjoy what the city has to offer. But I have to be home for Christmas.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis and is sorry her trip to Asia is coming to an end.

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Travels to Laos — flexibility is king

Written by admin on December 15, 2008 – 12:37 pm -

Air travel isn’t what it used to be and leaves some people questioning whether or not it’s worth the hassle to take to the skies. I’m not of that persuasion nor will I ever be. But I have to admit that some trips are easier to take than others, especially when they entail multiple stops and unanticipated changes.

Here is a quick report about my current trip from the road, or airport, or hotel as it may be.

On our way to Asia, we stopped in Seoul and spent a night there to acclimate to the time difference. My friend and I managed to do some sightseeing, walk through a shopping area that caters exclusively to natives, take a fast swing through the National Museum and head back to the airport for a flight the following afternoon.

Our two-for-the-price-of-one-tickets on Asiana Airlines more than made up for the cost of the layover detour through Seoul. The airline service was among the best and most gracious we’ve ever encountered. If we hadn’t been forced to make additional changes to our onward itinerary, we would have been less stressed during our stopover in Seoul. But it has been a good lesson in flexibility (as if we needed the challenge).

Because of internal politics and airport closings, rather than going to Bangkok from Seoul, we flew via Singapore. Not anticipating that leg of the trip, we had done zero research. We were lucky enough to be able to book a room at the city’s newly opened St. Regis Hotel. It’s one of the most spectacular city hotels I’ve visited in years. Thank you Starwood for allowing us to redeem points that covered the cost of our stay (with butler service and all) right off of Orchard Road.

For anyone into the Christmas spirit, the city’s decorations are breathtaking. The airport road is lined with Disney characters — it makes you wonder whether or not you’re in a foreign country. After driving a few miles, the holiday decorations glow and glitter. But they aren’t the least bit gaudy and seem to inspire people to spend money. People from all over Asia head to Singapore for R&R as well as excellent medical treatment.

Singapore is famous for its written rules and regulations that don’t even permit people to publicly chew gum and there’s zero tolerance for drug use. There is no litter nor do you see broken down cars with mufflers roaring. Owning a car is expensive — the government has a lottery system for auto permits and then imposes taxes that prevent anyone other than mega-millionaires from owning more than one.

The one full day we were in Singapore, we hired a taxi to give us a tour of the city. We weren’t interested in seeing only tourist attractions and lucked out when we discovered our driver was a fountain of information and could have worked for the Chamber of Commerce. He committed to chauffeur us for an hour. But after three hours, we asked him to take us back to the hotel. Prior to driving a taxi, he’d worked for the government and wasn’t ready to financially or mentally retire.

During that three-hour tour, we saw most of the city, walked through Chinatown where the original houses have been preserved and upgraded and now house upscale boutiques. We learned about Singapore’s population and its importance as a shipping port as well as being a major financial center. Many multinational companies have headquarters here since Singapore is one of the safest places in the world to live and has excellent schools. Violent crime is essentially non-existent and people of any and all religions peacefully coexist.

The city is growing by leaps and bounds. It has an opera house, on-going cultural events and (for better or worse) will soon have a theme park. in addition to a casino. Its economy isn’t experiencing the same downturn and there’s still employment to be had.

International cusine is available from every corner of the world. Anyone who wants to sample many, head to an indoor or outdoor food court and enjoy food from multiple countries. The city is the quintessential mixing pot for people of all nationalities. What we would have given for an extra day to be able to explore more. The idea of not rushing was becoming a fantasy and how we wanted to really unpack for real.

The Hanoi layover
The next morning we departed for the airport at 7:30 a.m. The Singapore Airport is huge and even though we thought we had the correct departure terminal, we found ourselves in the wrong one and raced via the sky train to another terminal where we were on the next plane to Hanoi.

Our layover was five hours because of our forced rerouting. Spending five hours in any airport is no one’s idea of heaven. The Hanoi airport is one of the least exciting and how we would have loved to have gone into the city (we would have had time to have some clothes custom-made), but we didn’t have a visa to exit the airport.

The transit lounge in the Hanoi airport is tiny. Even though the airport professes to have WiFi, I was only able to receive and send email — it felt like the old days of being on a dial-up modem. I couldn’t even access Bonjour Paris.

Our flights and trip has been changed so many times and changed again –  thank you Imperial American Express Travel Service. This trip would have ben impossible without a good travel agent’s help. Additional flight changes were received today since one of our flights has been canceled and I suspect there will be more.

Finally, Laos
I am writing this from Laos, which is one of the most inspirational countries I’ve ever visited. The adventure has just begun. There’s no question I’ll be in a more Zen place after spending time in Buddhist temples and experiencing a totally different culture and a way of life and being.

In the meantime, here are two not-so-new lessons I’ve learned:

Don’t count on being in constant touch. There is no guaratee about getting an Internet connection or receiving and sending emails via a Blackberry.

Confirm every on-going flight. Travelers may complain about air travel in the US and usually with valid reasons — but when in developing countries, plaster a smile on your face, learn how to say please and thank you in the local language and leave your type A personality at home.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis

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Bangkok-bound? Uncertainty abounds

Written by admin on November 28, 2008 – 12:52 pm -

This time next week, I’ll scheduled to be jetting off to Asia. The first stop on this marathon is Seoul, South Korea. It’s not that I’ve had a deep and dirty yen to visit this country. But, since we’ll be flying from New York, Seoul is a good spot to acclimate to the time change. I’ll have time to take a quick look-see, explore the tiny streets and alleys in the city’s market that people report deserves exploring and 30 hours later, proceed to Bangkok on my way to Laos.

Or so we thought and still hope. As of today, the airport is closed, a battle is brewing and there’s general unrest. Tourists are unable to fly to the main international airport. Some planes are landing and taking off at an auxiliary airport. But the situation is a mess in so many ways.

When the news broke over the radio and TV, I could sense impending trouble. The first call I made was to Sivan, my travel agent at Imperial American Express Travel Services.

Within minutes, she had made additional reservations via Hanoi, Vietnam. At the same time, she advised us to wait and evaluate the travel situation until after the Thanksgiving holiday. This is when you’re grateful for a really competent travel consultant who doesn’t flinch after receiving high-stress emails or semi-hysterical phone calls.

Traveling between Paris and Washington, DC is one thing. But a trip across Asia with late-minute changes requires a pro, who has immediate access to all of the booking engines and can accomplish things with the click of a mouse.

OK   – I can (try to) be laid back but it’s not really my style. And if it were mine, it isn’t Vietnam’s. Visitors are required to have a visa to enter the country and it doesn’t come fast or cheap.

A passport expeditor, he said he’d get the visa within 24 hours. But we’d be required to supply proof of flights and confirmation of hotel rooms. Thank goodness for the Internet … but who needs the drama, trauma and the stress. Don’t get me wrong. I love Vietnam. But I’ve been there three times in the past three years and wanted to see Bangkok this go-around.

Thailand has already experienced a dramatic drop in tourism. This isn’t helping the situation to be sure. Then again, who wants to go to a country in the midst of civil disobedience?

I’ve contacted people I know living or working in Thailand. They have responded that it’s safe to come to Bangkok and I shouldn’t fear for my life. The media tends to loop video segments dramatizing the situation. However, landing at the airport may prove problematic, no matter what my friends have to say.

Yes, I will use my city smarts, be on the lookout for pickpockets and people up to no good. And if the flights are taking off and landing, I’ll request a hotel car meet us. There are times it’s worth the extra money to have an extra barrier of protection.

But unless the flights aren’t going, we’ll be there. Know you’ll hear more about the experience. And yes, we’ll definitely register with the Embassy.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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