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New blow to tourism with airport chaos  Nov 25, 2008

The tourism sector, already reeling from the global economic downturn, suffered a fresh blow yesterday as People's Alliance for Democracy anti-government protesters forced Suvarnabhumi airport to suspend outbound flights.

Thousands of travellers faced the prospect of missed flights last night as protesters blocked the main motorway from the capital to the airport and later stormed the terminal to disrupt operations.

Olarn Chaipravat, the deputy prime minister overseeing economic policy, acknowledged that the PAD protests would undermine the country's image abroad and hurt investor confidence.

"They [PAD] have the right to protest, but they must consider the rights of others. And they should also consider the damage caused to the entire country," he said.

Airline and tourism executives warned that the political tensions would deal another heavy blow to the ailing industry and the country's international image.

PAD rallies in late-August that forced the shutdowns of Krabi, Phuket and Hat Yai airports had already put the country's "Land of Smiles" image in jeopardy.

Arrivals in September plummeted 16.5% from last year, with hotel occupancy rates nosediving to just 46.3% compared with 57.5% in August.

The latest tensions could force many operators into bankruptcy, coming just weeks before the peak of the tourist season over the year-end holidays.

Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), said the PAD protest yesterday would have a massive impact on the industry.

"Don't think that the Thai tourism business will grow next year. It's dying now because of the political problems. In the best case, we might just see flat growth," Mr Apichart said.

Another tourism expert said the attempts by the PAD to close Suvarnabhumi airport reflected the "lawless society" in Thailand.

"Do you know when the country's image is destroyed, it's very difficult to revive it in a short period? What does Thai hospitality look like now, when there are clashes and violence inside the country?" he said.

Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kohsurat said authorities were coordinating with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to update overseas tourism offices about the latest developments.

The ministry was also working with the Thai Travel Agents Association and airport operator Airports of Thailand Plc (AoT) to assist tourists and advise on alternative travel routes to Suvarnabhumi airport.

Business leaders said multinational companies would likely impose travel restrictions to minimise risk.

New blow to tourism with airport chaos
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