India, Thailand Face PR Hurdles in Wake of Terror Attacks, Airport Blockade

Travel Campaigns for Nations Thrown Into Turmoil

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MUMBAI, India (AdAge.com) -- Amid recent turbulence in India and Thailand that threatens to unravel their status as top Asian tourism destinations, both countries have pulled their travel and tourism campaigns.
Anti-government protesters have kept Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport at a standstill since last week.
Anti-government protesters have kept Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport at a standstill since last week. Credit: Apichart Weerawong

Terrorists last week attacked 10 targets in Mumbai, the center of India's financial, marketing, media and film industries, leaving 179 people dead during three days of fighting between members of an Islamist group called the Deccan Mujahedeen and India's police and military. Most of the fighting took place at the city's premier hotels, the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal, which are frequented by foreigners.

The terrifying ordeal trapped hundreds of executives in the hotels for days, including incoming Unilever CEO Paul Polman and current CEO Patrick Cescau, who were in the Taj Mahal Hotel when it was attacked.

Bangkok travelers grounded
In Bangkok, anti-government protesters took control of Suvarnabhumi International Airport one week ago. The sit-in stranded an estimated 100,000 passengers in Bangkok.

The lack of tourists is a crippling blow for hotel operators and other travel-dependent businesses in Thailand and India. October to March is the dry season in South Asia, and the Christmas and New Year period are peak weeks for tourism.

India attracted about 5 million tourists last year but will see a fraction of that this year. Aware that airlines are already cutting flights into Mumbai, India's tourist board is working on a "repair" campaign to lure visitors back, said Suman Srivastava, Euro RSCG's Mumbai-based CEO, India. The Havas agency handles TV creative for India's tourism ministry in North America and Europe.

"Seminars and visits by global executives have been canceled, because people aren't willing to fly in right now. It could get pretty bad, but most places hit by an attack like New York and Bali do bounce back -- and India has bounced back from attacks in the past," Mr. Srivastava said.

Recovery expected
Apart from the drop-off in visitors and a short-term downturn for public entertainment venues in Mumbai like cinemas, executives in India say the country will recover. "Assuming there are no other attacks or security problems, the fundamentals remain intact. India is still growing, it has an increasingly wealthy middle class with significant disposable income and it remains a significant consumer market," said Chris Devonshire Ellis, Beijing-based senior partner-international practice and country manager for India at Dezan Shira & Associates, which helps multinationals handle direct investments in Asia.

The impact of the terrorist attack "carries a fair amount of psychological collateral damage, but in physical terms life is back to normal," said Vikram Sakhuja, Group M's Mumbai-based CEO, South Asia.

The demonstrations in Thailand will have a larger and longer-lasting economic impact. The blockade brought to a halt two of the country's leading industries, import-export and tourism.

About 60,000 tourists pass through Suvarnabhumi airport every day. Many are transit passengers, but Thailand is a leading holiday destination in Asia. This year, about 14 million visitors spent at least three days there on vacation.

Fearing the worst
That figure could easily be cut in half in 2009, a "huge drop," said Mark Ingrouille, regional director for Southeast Asia at McCann Erickson, which handles international advertising for the tourism board's long-running "Amazing Thailand" campaign. Thailand is preparing "multiple routes" for a new marketing campaign, he said.

Advertisers aren't holding off on ad campaigns, he said, "but events and PR assignments for product launches and promotions have been put on hold indefinitely. Clients are having trouble paying us, because their cash flow has come to a standstill with the airport closed."

Mr. Ingrouille predicted that McCann's revenue in Thailand would be flat next year as a result of the general global economic situation. "Now I'm expecting a 15% to 20% downturn next year, which is pretty devastating."
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