Despite suffering from the worst water crisis in 20 years and temperatures hitting near-record high, Thais joined their neighbors – Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in welcoming the traditional Buddhist festival to make merits on April 13th – the first day of water festival known as Songkran Festival, also the first day of Thai New Year.
Water symbolises washing away misfortunes in the past. Unfortunately, it comes as the wider region is struggling to deal with the most severe drought seen in decades leaving thousands of households with restricted access to water – over a third of Thai provinces declared drought, in particular the underprivileged areas of North, Northeast and Central regions being the worst sufferers. Thai authorities encouraged citizens and tourists to avoid the use of hoses and buckets to save water.
What’s worse is the fact that various number of reservoirs in the country are now under 30% of their capacity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed to cap the release of water on farmers pumping river water for their crops causing loss in potential level of crops sales for months. Due to this, low income and labor workers are unable to pay off their debts and are finding it tough to find new jobs as new skills are needed and they are unable to afford to take time off for retraining as the needs of their families need to be supported daily. These are the results of the global El Nino phenomenon whereby warmer sea waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean alters normal temperature and rainfall patterns. Rice paddies that are naturally filled with water and plantations are now baked dry. Moreover, the backbone of the country agricultural exports, rice and sugarcane productions are badly affected.
The waves of drought have been felted across Southeast Asia and what worsen the situation is the fact that the weather condition is not right for the Thailand’s Royal Rainmaking airborne unit to fly due to lack of clouds due to the El Nino phenomenon. However, Thailand is expected to save 5 billion litres of water by shortening the water festival to three days with the addition of nighttime curfew.
The extensive damming of the Mekong River by the Chinese, which flows through Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, aggravated the temperature across Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam suffered the worst drought compared to the neighboring countries where the water level dropped to its lowest point of the century, and nearly a million citizens do not have enough water to quench even their thirst.
Despite all rising concerns about the water reservoirs, Thailand sees tourism revenue rising by 10% during Songkran festival.
Like many countries, foreign tourists see Thai “festivals” as “tourist” attractions. This boosts the local economy both on and off the festival site generating revenues for local communities. Songkran festival gives free marketing for the economy. These economic benefits of successful Songkran Festival ripple across both tourism and non-tourism-related business. The direct contribution of Travel and Tourism (T&T) accounted for 8.6% of total GDP and is estimated to rise to 11.1% by 2025. Moreover, the total contribution of T&T considers economic activity generated by retail industries such as travel agents, hotels, and airlines.
Social benefits of the water festival ripple across Southeast Asia and throughout the ASEAN member countries building stronger relationships within the community that keeps growing. The festival creates bonds among locals and tourists, government and community through the exchange of culture that last beyond the events as people bring their collective knowledge and skills to improve the community – this is innovation. It also means that visitors will be attracted to visit the country again, even if it is not during the times of festivals. This means that the level of tourism and spending within the country will increase and would in turn boost the economy in the long run. Visitors exports generated 14.4% of total exports and is predicted to rise to 17.3% by 2025. Recent activities such as property buying by foreign investors in particular, famous tourist attractions such as Pattaya is one of the key drivers of visitors exports.
Economic slowdown experienced during the past few years as a consequence of political turmoil; tourism was seen as the only engine driving the economy encountering gusts from exports, public spending, and domestic consumption.
For several years, and particularly since 2013, the Thai economy has relied on tourism for a disproportionate chunk of its economic growth. On account of persistent drought, domestic consumers are worried they will have to pay more for water and have decided to celebrate water festival in their local provinces. In order to boost domestic consumption, Thai authorities have approved of the economic stimulus measures and encourage people to spend and travel with a maximum tax reduction of 15,000 Baht (427 dollars) per person and extended the tax deduction for hotel accommodation including double bonus for Thai travelers traveling domestically from the 9th to 17th of April. This means that individuals that dine in restaurants that issue tax invoices during the Songkran festival can also claim their income tax reduction creating an incentive to spend and boost the economy. This measure is expected to diminish the damage that may arise from severe drought by 0.5% of GDP. Although the impact on the Thai economy from Songkran festival spending may not seem to be significant, it also promotes the cultural aspect of the country alongside the consumption gain. The picture becomes clearer with the presence of positive tourism by-product – employment. Employment from T&T generated over 2 million jobs and is expected to grow to 20.2% of total employment by 2025 from now (14.1%).
With no rain in the short-term forecast and measures taken to look after the Thai economy through short-term tax deduction, tourism will continue to play a major role in the Thai economy and show an upward trend despite the reduction in water supply. The suffering Southeast Asian countries are hoping that the approaching monsoon rains will save the baked dry grounds turning them back to carpeted green plantation and employment in suffering areas restores as El Nino continues to fade.