BANGKOK, Thailand — Following a decade of declining health, 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world’s then-longest-reigning monarch, passed away in Bangkok on October 13. The king’s untimely death concluded a reign that lasted more than seven decades and initiated a year-long period of mourning, bearing substantial consequences for the nation’s luxury and fashion sectors.
As declared by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the junta that has ruled the country since 2014 after seizing power through a bloodless coup d’état, civil servants will be expected to wear “sombre-coloured” attire for the duration of the mourning period, while the rest of the population has been ordered to “tone down” or cancel entertainment and “joyful events” for at least the next month.
Though the first full week of mourning has yet to pass, the consequences are already being felt. “I think [the fashion and luxury sectors] are definitely going to suffer — there will be a drastic decline in consumers of fashion brands,” predicts Kullawit ‘Ford’ Laosuksri, editor-in-chief of Vogue Thailand. “For example, I have spoken to a distributor of Kate Spade and Valentino, and they said that they had to re-estimate their Spring/Summer orders … The tourist and retail sectors are going to see a decline in sales — that is something the whole nation is afraid of.”
Indeed, many of these fears are justified. “Retailers and hotels cancelled all promotions and activities related to sales and events during October to November,” says Anisa Ngandee, an analyst from Euromonitor. “Generally, the last quarter is usually the peak tourism period and the months where retailers [see] festive spending [during the] holiday seasons; thus, it will have a short-term impact on the retailers and hotels sales.”
Regarding his publication, Laosuksri says, “There’s nothing we can do for the November issue, [but] for December issue, we are definitely going to decrease the print run, [while] a lot of traditional advertisements will be — if not in black and white — condolence messages.”
From a Western perspective, the extent of mourning may seem extreme, but King Bhumibol’s reign was unique. For most Thais, life under Bhumibol is all they have ever known. “I and all the Thai people view this passing of the king as something that is quite personal as if somebody from our family has passed,” says Laosuksri. King Bhumibol’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has delayed his ascension to join the Thai people in grieving for his father; however, the country’s general election will go ahead as planned in late 2017.
In recent years, the Thai luxury market has shown tremendous promise, growing 8 percent year-on-year from 2015 to 2016, reaching a total value of nearly $1.6 billion, according to Euromonitor. This can partly be attributed in part to the country’s young, wealthy upper-middle class. According to Digital Luxury Group,a business intelligence firm headquarted in Geneva, 20.5 percent of consumers who earned $150,000 or more in 2014 fell into the 30-34 age bracket, while another 18.6 percent fell into the 35-39 bracket, giving luxury brands and retailers ample space to penetrate the Thai market.
The tourist and retail sectors are going to see a decline in sales — that is something the whole nation is afraid of.
Nevertheless, despite this wealthy domestic consumer base, tourism still plays a significant role in sales of luxury goods. According to Bain & Company’s 2015 Global Luxury Goods Report, “Thailand [is a] top performer [in the Southeast Asia market] thanks to Chinese flows with strong potential going forward.” Just two days before the death of the king, Thailand’s biggest retailer, Central Group, announced expectations of a 21 percent rise in revenue to 320 billion baht ($9.17 billion) for fiscal 2016; sales at Central stores to foreigners rose 15 percent while transactions with domestic consumers merely increased by 5 percent.
Given the immediate decline in the domestic demand for luxury goods, the Thai government must now tighten their dependence on the tourism sector to offset regressions, as retailers scramble to compensate losses in sales. “[The fashion industry] is very much going to depend on tourism; therefore, I think the government will be trying their best to promote it … after the one-month period,” predicts Laosuksri.
If Laosuksri’s forecasts are correct, the Thai government will need to amplify its current efforts to engage Chinese tourists. “Thai authorities are leveraging Mandarin websites and KOL (key opinion leader) representation in China to promote the destination,” says Thibaud Andre of Daxue Consulting, a market research firm based in China. “[They] are strongly pushing their domestic practitioners to be more educated on Chinese culture and basic Mandarin, as well as [to increase activity] on Chinese platforms such as Wechat, Weibo or Taobao.”
Despite the negative image of Chinese tourists in Thailand and controversy surrounding the recent crackdowns on “zero-dollar” budget tours targeted at lower-income tourists from China earlier this month, according to the Siam Commercial Bank, the average daily expenditure per person amongst Chinese tourists has grown to 5,748 baht ($164.1) in 2015, from 4,425 baht ($126.4) five years prior. In terms of purchasing power, foreign shoppers, especially Chinese tourists, have become a cornerstone of the Thai luxury market.
In data provided by Thailand’s Department of Tourism, from January to August of this year, approximately 6.6 million tourists from China visited Thailand — more than from Europe, the United States, Australia, Africa and the Middle East combined – with nearly two million arriving between January and February 2016 alone, an especially high-traffic period for the Lunar New Year.
In the near future, Thailand’s luxury retail market may face several hurdles in sustaining recent growths in sales — particularly given the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws and the increasing risk of ultra-monarchist violence in the capital deterring inbound tourists from mainland China. “In the short term … we already lowered our expectations to 10.5 million visits for 2016 due to the mourning period,” says Andre. “Chinese agencies are already refunding their clients and tour operators are cancelling trips.”
While the short-term forecast may seem turbulent, market analysts remain positive about the future. According to Ngandee, “In the long term, with the development of infrastructure, expected number of tourists are projected to be positive; [compounded with] the expansion of Thai middle-income population, industries are generally looking forward to more optimistic performances.” Nevertheless, Euromonitor suggests that stability still remains contingent upon next year’s government election.
However, the country has shown resilience during previous political and social upheavals, and many Thai industry insiders like Laosuksri maintain a sense of hope in this period of uncertainty.
“Euromonitor projects that more than 12 million incoming Chinese tourists at the end of 2020, [and] Thailand is expected to remain among the top destinations and might overtake the second hit destination [for outbound Chinese travellers] at the end forecast period,” assures Ngandee.