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Blackpink’s opts out as icon of Thailand’s tourism reopening

K-pop star's agency declines offer to have her co-star in year-end event in Phuket

BANGKOK — The Thai government’s desire to hire Lalisa Manobal, also known as Lisa of the K-pop girl band Blackpink, as the icon of the country’s tourism revival has been shattered, as the Thai star’s talent agency has turned down a request for her to co-star in a year-end event on the southern island of Phuket.

Thailand will start welcoming fully vaccinated international visitors from 45 countries and a territory without any quarantine period from Nov. 1. The year-end event is meant to be a celebration in style of the successful reopening.

“We are very grateful and honored for such a proposal,” said Lisa’s agency YG Entertainment in a statement. “But unfortunately, Lisa will not be able to attend the event. We hope there will not be any confusion.” The agency cited the 24-year-old’s busy schedule as the reason for opting out.

Tourism Authority of Thailand Gov. Yuthasak Supasorn acknowledged that the statement had been received by the agency’s office in Seoul.

The statement came in response to remarks by government representatives during the past few weeks to media on their confidence of securing the Thai-born K-pop star for the event. On Monday, Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said the Tourism Authority of Thailand would coordinate with the South Korean embassy in Thailand to help invite Lisa as the government’s guest.

“The main reason for bringing global artists for the New Year celebration is to announce to the world that Thailand is ready to fully reopen for tourists from everywhere in 2022,” Phiphat said.

According to the minister, the year-end event will cost 300 million baht ($9 million). The government was to have used 100 million baht to book the K-pop singer and Italian opera vocalist Andrea Bocelli, who already has confirmed his appearance. The remaining 200 million baht is to be raised from the private sector.

The large budget had become a target for criticism among Thais, who complained that the money should be used more efficiently to support the ailing economy. The Ministry of Finance cut its 2021 economic growth forecast from 1.3% to 1.0% due to outbreaks of the highly infectious delta variant of Covid-19 and consequent business lockdowns.

Southeast Asia’s second largest economy shrank 6.1% in 2020 due to lack of tourists. Some 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product came from tourism and related businesses in pre-COVID times. The country still reports over 8,000 cases a day despite the approaching tourism reopening.

The event plan will need an overhaul as Lisa’s non-participation will draw less investment from sponsors. Whether Bocelli will still participate or cancel his booking and incur penalty fees has not been announced.

Lisa was born in Buriram, a province in northeastern Thailand 300 km from Bangkok. In 2010, at the age of 13, she was selected from among 4,000 participants in an audition in Thailand to join YG Entertainment. Starting the next year, she spent five years as a trainee in South Korea.

After debuting as one of the four members of Blackpink in 2016, Lisa and the group quickly rode high on the global success of South Korean pop culture. They have gained status as not only a cultural but also a commercial phenomenon, pushing the members to be massive influencers on the Internet as well.

In September, the Thai idol made a solo debut with a single under her real name Lalisa. The song’s music video earned 73.6 million views on YouTube on the first day of its release. This made it the most-viewed video by a soloist in 24 hours, passing the previous record of 65.2 million views held by Taylor Swift’s “Me!” featuring Brendon Urie. As of Oct. 29, the video’s view count was over 300 million. More than 60 million people follow her on Instagram.

Lisa’s social media popularity strongly appeals to Thai youth’s fandom culture, which has also been shifting online as it seeks safer ways of communication in the pandemic world. According to a research report by Twitter, there was 21% growth from January 2020 to June 2021 in tweets by Thai users sharing their fascination with idols. The conversations are often boosted by fellow fans who share the same passions.

In the music video, Lisa wore traditional Thai headgear known as Chada. The pointed golden helmets are typically worn during traditional dances and religious rituals. Chada became an instant hit after the video’s release, as many youngsters bought them so they could post their pictures on social media posing like Lisa.

Her marketing power has attracted considerable attention from the business community. Thailand’s largest mobile operator Advanced Info Service hired her to promote its services in 2019. In September, Siam Health Group, the producer and marketer of Dentiste toothpaste, chose the 24-year-old as the new brand ambassador to star in a new global campaign. The company intends to allocate 100 million to 300 million baht for the campaign.

Although the Thai government’s plan to invite Lisa for the year-end countdown event did not materialize, it has not given up on capitalizing on her popularity. Tourism Authority of Thailand Gov. Yuthasak said his agency hopes to work with Lisa in the future.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha already has an idea for collaboration. In September, the premier expressed his readiness to promote the country’s soft power to increase value in the creative economy. The move, according to a government spokesperson, was inspired by Lisa’s success. The government may approach her with another offer soon, as it needs to get on the bandwagon.

As youth-led anti-establishment protests since 2020 showed, the current administration lacks support from the younger generation. Thailand’s next general election must be held by 2023.

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