Protests wipe smile from Thai tourism sector

A tourist takes videos of protesters in Bangkok, Thailand.
The "Land of Smiles" is growing grim as the political maelstrom in Thailand threatens to further erode the southeast Asian nation’s battered tourism industry.

Thailand has been a popular destination since its spectacular beaches were discovered four decades ago by backpacking travelers and U.S. troops on leave from Vietnam. But visits and tourism dollars have dwindled in recent months on the heels of the global economic crisis and December protests that blocked access to Bangkok’s airports. A current round of protests — marked by the cancellation of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in the southern coastal city of Pattaya this past weekend — is bound to further drive tourism business away from the country. “If people are deciding between a beach getaway in Fiji or Thailand, which do you think they’ll choose now” said Pete Cooper, an Australian business consultant based in Bangkok. The battle between the “yellow shirts,” supporters of the current government, and “red shirts” — protesters now on the streets in support of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — has tourists glued to television sets, while curfews have been set in Bangkok, the nation’s capital. Bruce Bugajski of Tucson, Arizona, arrived for a four-day trip to Thailand on Sunday night and was driven to his hotel by a cabdriver with a red ribbon on his dashboard, signifying his support for the protesters. “He had a picture of the old prime minister,” Bugajski said. Monday morning, the scene outside his hotel was calm and normal — a contrast to the images of clashes blaring from the television screen.

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“Kids were outside squirting tourists with their squirt guns, and some of the tourists were getting into it,” said Bugajski, referring to a water dousing ritual that is part of Songkran, a three-day holiday that began Monday in Thailand. “It’s quite a different picture.” In other parts of the city, the scene wasn’t squirt guns but water cannons as police fought pockets of protesters and had dozens of tourists running for cover. It’s not the image needed by Thailand’s important tourism industry, which has been battered in quick succession by the 2004 south Asian tsunami and the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin. The tourism industry came roaring back in early 2008, with visitors increasing by nearly 13 percent year-on-year in the first quarter. But the global economic crisis and the country’s political unrest led to a plunge in visitors in the last half of the year. In total, 5 percent fewer tourists came to Thailand in 2008, compared with the previous year. The government has launched a $143 million drive to boost its tourism industry, which lost an estimated $8.3 billion dollars after the December blockade of Bangkok’s airports. In the wake of the violent protests, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Russia and Singapore have issued advisories warning about travel to Thailand. “On one hand, this is all typical Thailand; we have these things with alarming regularity,” said Andrew Biggs, a Bangkok-based television producer. “On the other hand, I think this is different from the past. It’s difficult to imagine where things are going to go from here.”

The tourism industry should be benefiting from the weak baht by bringing more international tourists, said Pornthip Hirunkate, secretary general of the Tourism Council of Thailand. Instead, the council estimates the current crisis will cost $5.6 billion in lost revenue. “We are losing the opportunity because of this critical moment right now,” she said. “We are praying for peace and hoping whatever the color shirts (they wear), they consider the interests of the country before the interests of themselves.”