It’s pluses and minuses for Pattaya’s travel industry says local operator

Marlowe’s family travel business with his daughter Vicky (left) and his wife Malvinder.

Marlowe Malhotra, a Pattaya-based businessman since 1973, knows a thing or two about local tourism. He has been running his own travel agency since 2008, now called Vicky Travel, and has seen first-hand the boom times as well as a prolonged recession. “The best years lasted until around 2013 as virtually everyone booked their tickets through a travel agency,” Marlowe recalls ruefully.

As the internet became ever more popular and sophisticated, travel agencies like the Roman empire declined and fell. People felt confident enough to book their own tickets online either directly with the airlines, which by now were using mass mailing techniques, or through consolidators who could offer a range of prices and alternative routes. “Actually, many tour companies in Pattaya had disappeared long before Covid struck, “explains Marlowe, “and the closure of Thailand to tourist traffic on March 24 2020 finished off the rest.”

Almost alone in a big city, Marlowe remained open for business during the darkest days of coronavirus. “Europeans marooned here were desperate to return to their own countries and most of our work was dealing with ticket cancellations and rebookings as airline prices surged. I spent most of the time just listening to distraught customers and their financial problems.” The Thai government introduced the ongoing Covid extensions which allowed (and still allow) tourists to renew their extensions of stay indefinitely without leaving the country for visa runs. “Frankly the pandemic, one way and another, made it impossible for us to make a profit.”

Marlowe thinks Pattaya is on the road to international recovery, but it’s going to be a lengthy process. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand to visit Pattaya even though many of the facilities are still padlocked. I get a lot of emails from UK asking what’s going on here,” says Marlowe. On the other hand, airfares are currently about double what they were in 2019 and inflation has taken root just about everywhere. Another problem is shortage of pilots and airline staff with tens of thousands of flights internationally already cancelled. “It’s difficult and expensive to book flights to some destinations even for several months ahead.” A business class return flight from Bangkok to UK will set you back now a minimum of 3,500 pounds or 160,000 baht.

The bedrock of Marlowe’s business these days is the Pattaya expat community, notably the 20,000 or so retirees or multiple entry visa holders. They are often less than confident about booking online and some don’t even have a credit card that actually works. Debit cards tend not to. Marlowe has also successfully diversified his services. “I not only book airtickets, but sell insurance and help clients apply for visas by filling in forms and uploading their personal details.” He adds that some expats, now looking for a break, are inquiring about mini-trips to Asian resorts.

A seasoned Brit came in the shop and wanted to know how much insurance he needed to visit the Philippines for five days and whether you could change a tourist visa to a business one after your arrival in Cambodia. He also wished to find out which land borders to Laos were open and what are the differences between the Malaysian my-second-home program and the 10 year long-term-residence visa in Thailand. “Give me a couple of days,” quipped Marlowe.