BANGKOK, Thailand (eTN) – Thailand seems to be facing increasing difficulties in controlling its political development. Again, street protests marred with violence forced the Thai government to cancel an ASEAN summit in Pattaya. The event is likely to further derail Thailand’s tourism recovery, which was seriously battered last year by political instability.
The political situation in Thailand is slightly different than last December when the yellow shirts took to Bangkok streets and finally completely blocked both Bangkok airports for a week. This time, the current Abhisit Vejjajiva looks more stable, as it has the backing of large parts of Thailand’s political and economic elite, as well as of the Royal army. It strikes a difference with the previous government of Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Whatever the solutions found to the new crisis, the declared state of emergency for six hours in Pattaya – infamous for its entertainment industry – is another serious blow to Thai tourism. It shows that no place is immune from political turmoil, even in a city living principally from tourism.
The lifting of the measure in Pattaya, after six hours, was followed on Sunday with the ASEAN summit’s cancellation and will definitely have an impact on ASEAN arrivals, which account for 60 percent of all visitors to the kingdom. Asian travelers remain indeed more sensitive to political instability and their safety than Europeans do, who are more mature in their travel behavior and less likely to be impressed by political demonstrations.
Following the closure of Bangkok airports last year, recovery was, in fact, quicker for Europeans than for Japanese, Chinese, Malaysians, and Singaporeans. The protests will once again raise the specter of possibly more violent actions, including a new airport blockade. Thaksin Shinawatra red-shirt followers already started blocking roads around the capital on Sunday. They also threatened to seize airports again.
According to an interview with the daily newspaper, “The Nation,” Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand, expected losses of at least Baht 100 billion (US$ 2.86 billion) with the new crisis. Many tour operators and tourism agencies now call for political factions to leave tourism outside their protest actions and predict no recovery for the next two years. So far, they failed to be listened to, jeopardizing one of Thailand’s major sources of employment (2 million people are directly working in tourism).
Once more, it will take a long time, as well as a lot of money, for the Tourism Authority of Thailand to spruce up the country’s tourism image. It will also take more and more imagination as the kingdom seems to head into a long period of regular turbulence. Although touristsnot suff do er from any violence, a sense of not feeling safe as a traveler in Thailand because of continuous political confrontations turns now into the biggest problem for the tourism industry.
According to the Bangkok Post, UDD has claimed that the clash has so far killed 6 people. However, there has been no official confirmation of this claim.
Interestingly, all over Thailand and everywhere in Bangkok, people are shooting their toy water guns at each other. Out of the narrow streets in downtown Bangkok, businesses are covering their stores and bars are covering their drinks to protect them from the crowd shooting water at each other and having a good time.
This is an old custom in Thailand during the five-day Thai New Year period Sonkrhan, this year between April 12 to 15. One would not know about the clash between the protesters and the authorities going on only blocks away, as people are “having a good time and getting wild.”
If it wasn’t for the TV and some of the rumors, Bangkok is a peaceful and fun place today. Tourists continue to enjoy the festivities, but there is a sense of uncertainty and a depressing feeling of the current situation.
Civil war with a smile? It’s the red shirts against the police and the army, but it has nothing to do with those still around enjoying the Thai New Year festivities. Sad for a country with such rich culture and the famous “Thai smile,” and one of the best service industries on the globe.
However, one thing is certain: the show of tourism must go on – and it still does in Thailand.
See for yourself via eTurboNews’ raw video of what’s happening in Bangkok: [youtube:_cnFHqYPfdQ]