Thai tourism under assault with fresh emergencies


BANGKOK — Thailand’s battle-hardened tourism sector faces being brought to its knees by two fresh blows — a state of emergency in the capital and a violent end to a beachside summit, experts warned Sunday.

Hopes for a revival in the industry — so important to Thailand’s struggling economy — evaporated as armed soldiers deployed across Bangkok to quell anti-government protests and tanks took up positions at strategic locations.

“Who will want to come to Thailand now?” said Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), urging the government to end the turmoil once and for all.

“We have nothing to lose any more, no tourists will come now anyway so we need to clear everything as soon as possible. We cannot have this situation go on and on,” he told AFP.

The industry weathered the SARS epidemic in 2003, the 2004 Asian tsunami and a 2006 coup, but the latest turmoil — just months after Bangkok’s two airports were closed by separate protests — may prove too much for wary foreigners.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency across the capital Bangkok and surrounding areas, as he struggled to contain rallies calling for him to resign at once.

The move came after extraordinary scenes Saturday in the resort town of Pattaya southeast of the capital, where the supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra stormed a summit of Asian leaders.

Thousands of red-shirted demonstrators breached police lines and flooded into the luxury hotel, sending tourists scattering and forcing an embarrassed government to call a state of emergency for Pattaya as it evacuated leaders.

Tourism chief Apichart said that predictions for 14 million tourists to travel to Thailand this year were now unreachable, and that if the political turmoil was not resolved by May it may sink below 10 million.

“We don’t want a state of emergency but if they don’t, the mobs will keep coming and these troubles will never end,” he said.

Apichart said he had already been fielding calls from Chinese tour agency representatives who were planning to cancel bookings for the lucrative May 1 holidays.

The China market is so important to Thailand that Abhisit sent a government minister to Beijing earlier this year to lobby for its travel warning to Thailand to be dropped.

Countries whose nationals frequently visit Thailand have been quick to warn travellers.

China’s foreign ministry Sunday urged its people to “exercise caution” if planning to travel to Thailand, and to be vigilant if already in the country.

Hong Kong went a step further and told travellers to “seriously consider” any trips to the kingdom.

On Saturday, Australia, Singapore and Russia all updated travel advisories to urge their citizens to avoid the summit city of Pattaya and exercise greater caution around all of Thailand.

The national tourism industry accounts for five percent of gross domestic product and employs two million people, or up to seven percent of the country’s total workforce.

It was hit badly last December when rival demonstrators seeking to oust Thaksin’s allies from government shuttered Bangkok’s airports for nine days.

The blockade left hundreds of thousands of visitors stranded and prevented 3.4 million tourists from visiting Thailand, costing the country 290 billion baht (8.3 billion dollars), according to a central bank study.

The closure, coupled with the global economic downturn, led the Abhisit government to approve a 143-million-dollar tourism rescue fund to ease the impact of waning profits.