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Well-heeled tourists flee Thailand on private jets

AFP  Dec 03, 2008

BANGKOK — As most grumbling holiday-makers wait frustrated in hotels after airport-based protests stranded them in Thailand, the wealthy are simply slipping out of the "Land of Smiles" by private jets.

Charter airline companies are seeing their bookings soar despite the enormous cost, after demonstrators seized Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi international airport and the smaller domestic hub Don Mueang last week.

Protesters began clearing out of the airport on Wednesday after the premier was forced from office by a court, but it will take weeks to clear the backlog of an estimated 350,000 people who missed flights.

In the meantime, the well-heeled are not prepared to wait.

"Since the closing of the airports, travellers are seeking out our service despite the premium costs," said Sukit Kaewamorn, marketing manager at air charter company Siam Land Flying.

"Many of those passengers come to us because they have few choices. They want to catch any flights just to take them out of Thailand."

Siam Land Flying used to operate out of Don Mueang, but has been ferrying moneyed passengers out of U-Tapao naval base southeast of Bangkok, which has become the major hub for passengers struggling to leave Thailand.

In the current tourist high season, the company usually operates 30 to 40 flights a month. Now, they are operating at least two flights a day, with mostly European tourists and business travellers seeking them out.

At about 5,500 dollars for a flight down to southern isle of Phuket and 14,000 dollars from U-Tapao to Singapore, the company should be ecstatic, but they worry about the turmoil's long-term impact on tourism here.

"We are not happy with this because it happens because of an unhealthy situation," Sukit said.

Another private airline company MJets usually operates two flights a day, but now they are at maximum capacity, flying five times a day, mostly to nearby countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

"The business is good," says MJets general manager Steve Lakeway. His company charges about 24,000 dollars for a trip in its eight-seat jet from the resort town of Hua Hin to Singapore.

But Lakeway hopes that the main airports will be up and running again quickly, and tells AFP that the tourism industry will have to work hard to restore confidence in Thailand.

The government has warned that the week-long siege of the airports will be crushing for the tourism industry, with one minister saying one million jobs could be lost next year and arrivals could drop by half.

The kingdom is estimated to be losing seven million dollars a day in tourism revenue -- a crushing blow in the current high season.

Well-heeled tourists flee Thailand on private jets
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