BANGKOK – Thailand is likely to miss its target of drawing 15.5 million visitors this year as rising tensions between anti-government protesters and troops in Bangkok spark more cancellations, especially among East Asian tourists, executives in the tourism industry said Monday.
The number of tourists from China, Hong Kong and South Korea has declined dramatically since the middle of March, Association of Thai Travel Agents President Surapol Sritrakul told Dow Jones Newswires.
Many charter flights from China have been called off while visitors from Hong Kong are also avoiding travel to Thailand, he said.
Some South Korean tourists have canceled their trips entirely while others have changed switched destinations from Bangkok to the country’s beach resorts, including Pattaya, and Phuket, he said.
The tourism industry is a major employer and an integral part of Thailand’s economy, contributing roughly 6%-7% of gross domestic product. The Fiscal Policy Office estimated that the clashes could cost Thailand around THB20.8 billion in lost tourism industry income this year.
Demonstrators loyal to fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been holding rallies in Bangkok since March 12 demanding the current government hold fresh elections. Clashes on Saturday between the two sides left 21 dead and hundreds injured in Thailand’s bloodiest political violence in nearly 20 years.
The protesters remain in downtown Bangkok, including at a blockade of the city’s main shopping and business district.
Surapol said he hasn’t yet collected data on trip cancellations after the Saturday’s bloodshed but said he expects many tourists to put off their travel plans in the kingdom.
“It’s too early to estimate damage,” he said.
He said that the number of tourists to the kingdom this year is likely to fall short of the government’s target of 15.5 million by about 1 million.
“If the political tensions are over soon, the tourism industry could recover late in this year during the country’s peak tourism season,” he said.
According to figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand released last Friday, tourists from East Asia fell 12.5% in March from a year earlier to 535, 294, as Hong Kong, China and Taiwan issued travel warnings to Thailand. East Asian tourists accounted for almost 40% of total tourist arrivals in March.
Tourism Authority of Thailand’s deputy governor, Prakit Piriyakiet, said the number of tourists to Bangkok is likely to be hit as a result of the fatal clashes on Saturday. However, it is too soon to estimate numbers.
Regular flights are still operating while tourist arrivals at other attractions like the beach resorts of Phuket, Krabi and Samui remain unchanged, Prakit added.
Prakit said the number of countries that have issued travel warnings for Thailand remains at 43. Only seven countries–Spain, Latvia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Czech Republic and Austria–have warned their citizens not to travel to Thailand.
Thai-Japan Tourism Association President Anek Srishevachart said it could trim its target for between 1 million and 1.2 million Japanese tourist arrivals this year.
“We are concerned about the number of Japanese tourist arrivals in the next two to three months–particularly during their Golden Week Holidays (in late April to early May). The effect this month may be minimal as their bookings aren’t refundable,” he said.
The Japanese were the second-largest group of international tourists to Thailand last year, with 982,607 tourists representing 6.9% of the total number of inbound tourists. Chinese visitors were the third-largest group at 815,708. The biggest group of tourists last year were from Malaysia with 1.75 million people.