Traveler, writer and TravelMassive Bangkok convenor Ric “GlobalGaz” Gazarian had a unique front-row seat to the pandemic’s effects on travel in the Mekong. As a long-time Thailand resident, Ric saw travel opportunities dwindle in the wake of the pandemic – and is seeing local tourist destinations recover as flight connections open up and travelers feel safe enough to visit.
We asked him to share his experience traveling within Thailand and the Mekong Region during the pandemic, and what new trends he hopes to see in the region moving forward.
From your perspective, how bad did travel in the Mekong subregion get during the pandemic? Do you feel it is recovering today?
In terms of the impact to the region, the Mekong region was arguably one of the worst hit regions in the world in a couple of different ways. A lot of those countries really did hard shutdowns. And the other thing, I mean, 15 to 20% of Thailand’s GDP numbers are driven by tourism. So Cambodia, Laos, these countries that derive a ton of their income from tourism got the double whammy of a hard shutdown and they really shut down tourism.
I think everybody knows the numbers, 40 million arrivals in 2019 to Thailand and then 2021, I think it was like 600,000 or something, just brutal like that.
Since many countries have reopened in 2022, do you have any opinion on how is travel is bouncing back in the region?
There’s a ton of pent-up demand. People want to travel again. So I think tourism will come back. What’s the bounce back? A lot of our pre-COVID tourists were Chinese and Russians; they aren’t coming back. And so many airlines are not able to keep up with their routes; they don’t have the staff.
That, in conjunction with rising oil prices – It’s a tough dynamic of trying to bounce back from this pandemic and then having to deal with these restrictions of supply, and the incredible price increases that we’re witnessing.
A lot of Mekong destinations are banking on domestic tourists to pick up the slack for them. Do you think domestic travel is effectively making up for the shortfall?
I don’t think the 65 million citizens of Thailand can replicate the 40 million international arrivals, economically. And also, locals’ buying patterns are a lot different, from my understanding, than the international visitor.
During the pandemic, I did go down to Chaweng Beach, the most popular beach for Koh Samui. And it was literally decimated; out of several hundred businesses on that strip, there was about ten shops open. For local Thais, Chaweng beach is not in demand for them. But other areas of Koh Samui had life breathed into them, such as like Fishermen’s Village up in the north.
Foreigners love Pattaya, but Thais are not going to spend a week there; maybe they’ll go for a weekend. They’re not replicating the buying patterns of the expat or tourist who comes for six months.
What are the post-pandemic opportunities for Mekong as a single tourism destination?
The Mekong is one of my favorite regions of the world, and I think one of the richest destinations in terms of just offering so much for the traveler. There’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of reasons to come. it’s still a good cost value, there’s really good infrastructure here.
A little thing that would make life easier is some sort of Mekong or ASEAN visa and some consistent rules, a longer time period when your visa is valid. If we want to promote visitors to this region, take out the friction that causes travelers to spend less time, or visit less countries in the region.
Are there any particular travel trends that you feel will be apparent, like post-pandemic bouncing back in the Mekong subregion?
Dispersed tourism and getting people out of Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Phuket and Koh Samui. I think, that is a goal that we should always be striving for. If you’re talking Cambodia, obviously we know the numbers that go into Angkor Wat. It’s such a valuable historical landmark. But can you develop secondary, tertiary locations to drive those several plus million people a year to go beyond Siem Reap?
We’ve also got the high speed rail going from China into Luang Prabang, and I think it’s just the beginning. There’s talk of having it go to Singapore. I think longer term, if that rail system is really up and running and connecting these countries, throwing a little visa help could make the Mekong sub-region a more attractive area to tourists. Making the logistics easier and bringing the concept of European rail travel to this unbelievable area would be great for the Mekong region.
Do you feel there are any destinations around the Mekong subregion that don’t get so much press, but should get more love from tourists?
Northeast Thailand’s a great example. I’ve been living on and off in Thailand for almost ten years. I never made it to Isan until the pandemic – from my understanding, only a couple of percent of tourists still only go to Isan.
How do you drive more people there? Do you have to send 100 or 500 journalists and travel bloggers just to make Isan go viral, so to speak? I don’t know the answer, to change the numbers significantly from Phuket where people have been going for years and has this immense tourism infrastructure. How do you move that lever?
Something like Laos, you know, I’ve been there a couple of times. I’ve gone to the same places both times: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, which are great must-see towns. But Plain of Jars in Laos – very few people go there, as far as I know, but that’s a unique historical site. How do you drive more people there?
You run the TravelMassive Bangkok chapter, one of the largest TravelMassive chapters in in Southeast Asia. What interesting initiatives or conversations has TravelMassive Bangkok chapter initiated?
TravelMassive is a global platform for travel professionals around the world. There’s about 80,000 users and over 100 local chapters. I’m a chapter leader in Bangkok, so the whole idea is simply connecting people, networking with people. we’re there to be a catalyst of relationships in the travel world. We were on hiatus for, I mean, probably two years.
We do all sorts of different events: speakers, panels, social events. We were doing a series of networking happy hour events with our partners at PATA and our lovely friends at Mekong Tourism. So those are very successful. We just restarted that in June in Bangkok and we’ll see if we can keep that momentum going