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Originally published January 27, 2014 at 1:44 PM | Page modified January 27, 2014 at 1:47 PM

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Thai tourism struggles amid political protests

Chinese and other Asian tourists canceling Lunar New Year trips; U.S. and other countries have cautioned travelers.


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Thai anti-government protests that have shut down parts of Bangkok may cost the nation’s tourism industry as Chinese visitors cancel trips during the lunar new year holiday that starts this week.

Other countries’ citizens also are staying away after governments cautioned them about travel to Bangkok.

Arrivals will fall by half to 1 million this month, Minister of Tourism and Sports Somsak Phurisisak said recently, with some hotels in the capital and nearby Pattaya and Hua Hin 30 percent full. The revenue loss could amount to 22.5 billion baht ($685 million), the Tourism Council of Thailand said, with China last week warning its citizens to avoid protest sites and reconsider non-essential travel to the country.

Other countries also have issued travel alerts about Thailand because of the political demonstrations, including the United States, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines.

“I first planned for a weeklong trip to Bangkok to visit my friend there for Christmas, but I had to postpone because of the unrest,” said Jia Yanfen, 38, a Beijing-based Chinese language teacher who has never been to Thailand. “I waited and waited, hoping to go for Chinese New Year,” Jia said. “I had to cancel the trip now. Of course I was a bit disappointed, but safety comes first.”

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok Jan. 22 as attacks on protesters escalated and demonstrators blockaded Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

“The biggest concern now is the prolonged protest begins to significantly affect the tourism industry, which was the only bright spot for the economy in 2013,” said Porranee Thongyen, head of research at Asia Plus Securities Pcl. “With sluggish consumption and investments, a slump in tourism revenue would further worsen the overall economy.”

Flights canceled

Bangkok attracted almost 4.2 million visitors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2013, a 46 percent jump from the year before, according to government data, and Somsak said about 300,000 Chinese tourists traditionally visit the country during the lunar new year holiday, which begins Jan. 31. “We expect to see more flight reductions by airlines, especially from China,” he told reporters in Bangkok.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. will cancel 43 flights between Singapore and Bangkok between Jan. 14 and Feb. 27, and Thai Airways International Pcl plans to scrap 25 flights between Hong Kong and the capital, the carriers said last week.

The Thai tourism industry rebounded from protests that shut the main airport for almost two weeks in 2008 and turned inner Bangkok into a war zone in 2010, as well as from disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated beach resorts in 2004, and floods in 2011.

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People are still visiting other parts of Thailand, according to Philip McNicholas, a Hong Kong-based economist at BNP Paribas SA. “Reading into just the impact for Bangkok and extrapolating that across the country is probably taking it a little bit too simply,” McNicholas said in a Bloomberg Television interview last week.

“In 2010, 70 percent of tourists went in through Bangkok, now it’s down to 60 percent,” he said. “It may prove somewhat more resilient than people expect.”

Thailand’s government imposed the state of emergency in Bangkok after bombings and shootings in the capital left one person dead and 70 injured.

Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition politician leading the protests, has vowed to continue the blockades that began Jan. 13 until Yingluck resigns. Suthep wants the government replaced with an unelected council that would change laws to prevent parties linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, returning to power.

The violence has been mostly limited to well-defined protest zones, and the city’s temples, markets, malls and nightspots remain open. The elevated rail system, known as the Sky Train, as well as the subway and river taxis have increased capacity to cope with demand from commuters and tourists.

Bookings to Thai destinations including Chiang Mai in the north, and beach resorts including Koh Samui and Phuket have helped offset a decline in demand in Bangkok, said Bill Heinecke, whose Minor International Pcl has 18 hotels in the country, including Bangkok’s St Regis and Four Seasons and the Anantara group of resorts.

“Of course our hotels have been affected, but Thailand as a whole still continues to welcome visitors from across the globe,” Heinecke said Jan. 23 by email. “Today’s traveler is very resilient as economic challenges, political difficulties and natural disasters happen all over the world.”

Still, with tourists from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong making up almost a quarter of all arrivals at Bangkok’s two international airports, salvaging the city’s traditional tourist high season will be a challenge.



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