First-Person Report: Thai Coup Leaves Tourism Unruffled

*Bill Delays Passport Rule
*ASTA's New Board
*Fare Buzz Celebrates One Year

By: Fred Gebhart

Getting into a cab at the Mo Chit Skytrain station, it’s rare to find a Bangkok taxi driver ebullient, especially at 11 p.m. But my driver was singing, almost dancing in his seat, shouting “Thaksin bye-bye, Thaksin bye-bye.”

The streets outside looked positively normal, as crowded with late-night traffic as the elevated railway had been crowded with bleary office workers and groggy students dozing their way home. Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, really was “bye-bye,” in New York City for a United Nations meeting.

The hotel lobby was crowded with the usual throng of midnight arrivals, standing jet-lagged and patient. Nothing was amiss until I turned on the television in my room.

Local channels had nothing but ancient film and video clips of Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. No news, no game shows dubbed into Thai. No CNN or BBC, either. That’s when I knew something was wrong. Google News told me that Thailand had just had a military coup.

The Associated Press and Reuters had little more than the bare facts: Army tanks had rolled early that evening, taking up positions at major government buildings and intersections. Thaksin was ousted in a coup okayed by the King himself, the ultimate arbiter of Thai politics.

As I read online, I kept channel surfing. Bloomberg TV was still broadcasting from Singapore with a steady stream of telephone interviews from Bangkok and occasional video phone feeds.

What they showed was stunning. Coup d’etat conjures up visions of grim-faced soldiers, clouds of tear gas, bodies in the street. But I was seeing swarms of people snapping photos of tanks, posing children with soldiers and grinning like it was the best day of their lives.

For many, it was. A snap poll taken the next morning showed that 86 percent of Thais outside Bangkok, where Thaksin had enjoyed almost universal support, thought the coup was a good idea. In Bangkok, pro-coup sentiment was close to 100 percent.

The impact on tourism? Negligible.

“Everyone commuted to work today and we are operating tours as we generally do,” e-mailed Lee Marona, general manager USA for Exotissimo, who was in Thailand following a fam trip.

The 420-room, five-star Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit had 100 percent occupancy the night of the coup and lost about 20 rooms to early departures. Perhaps 100 room nights were cancelled, then rebooked. Two nights later, the hotel was back to 100 percent.

And leaving Thailand? Never easier.

I showed up three hours early for my Cathay Pacific flight to San Francisco the next morning; check-in took less than 60 seconds. The only sign of the coup was newspaper photos filled with happy-looking Thais, and a bedraggled truckload of unarmed solders in front of the airport, huddled beneath a highway overpass to escape a steady rain.

By Fred Gebhart

Congress Passes Bill Delaying Passport Rule for Land, Sea Travel

On Sept. 29, Congress approved an amendment that would delay implementation of new passport requirements included in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a law requiring U.S. travelers to have passports in order to re-enter the U.S from abroad.

The last-minute revision delays implementation until June 1, 2009, the requirement for passports for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda through the same date. All U.S. citizens, however, will need passports for travel by air starting Jan. 8, 2007, as previously proposed.

According to senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the co-sponsors of the amendment, the legislation will allow more time to perfect a system that will also make PASS cards an available alternative to passports for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.

Under the amendment, Congress requires the DHS and the State Department to first complete seven benchmarks in order to implement the passport requirement, as well as develop the proposed PASS cards.

The amendment represents a significant victory for the travel industry, which lobbied heavily for a delay in the implementation of the passport rule.

“[The government] needed more time to implement this,” said Rick Webster, vice president, government affairs for the Travel Industry Association.

Webster said that while the measure delays implementation of the passport rule until June 1, 2009, the government could move sooner if they’re ready.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization, the Caribbean Hotel Association, along with local hotel associations in the region as well as tourism ministers and commissioners of foreign affairs had lobbied strenuously for a deadline extension for passengers returning to the U.S. by both air and sea. The International Council of Cruise Lines also praised Washington’s decision.

While both cruise passengers and travelers entering Canada and Mexico by land would be able to use the proposed PASS card, the industry still recommends that travelers apply for passports.

ASTA’s New Board of Directors

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) recently announced that its Chapter Presidents Council (CPC) elected Nina Meyer, CTC, South Florida chapter president; Chris Russo, Rocky Mountain chapter president; and Carol Wagner, CTC, Michigan chapter president as the three chapter president representatives to the 2006-2007 ASTA Board of Directors.

The election was held during ASTA’s meeting held in conjunction with THETRADESHOW in Orlando, Fla. Russo also was elected as Chair of the CPC for 2006-2007. They join the nine directors elected in July by the ASTA voting membership.

“ASTA’s Chapter President representatives are an essential part of our Board. They bring with them valuable industry experience and the collective viewpoint of our member agents,” said Cheryl Hudak, CTC, ASTA president and CEO. “I am excited to work with these fine professionals and look forward to a productive and innovative year.”

The Buzz online

Fare Buzz, a leading provider of consolidated airfares available exclusively to travel agents and corporate travel planners, is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its online booking engine, Agents who book on the Web site through October have a chance to win free coach tickets for domestic or international travel. Restrictions and some blackout dates apply.

Launched August 2005, is a reservation system that provides members with free, instant access to the company’s array of consolidated airfares, and allows agents to set their commission rates and retain 100 percent of their markups.
By Kim Costa


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