Image: Protesters
Wong Maye-E  /  AP
Anti-government protesters rest on their handmade bamboo barricade to their encampment on April 21, in Bangkok, Thailand.
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updated 4/21/2010 1:46:11 PM ET 2010-04-21T17:46:11

Thailand's bloody political crisis has been scaring away tourists for weeks but took a new turn this week when some of the capital's finest hotels sent guests packing for fear of violence at their doorsteps.

The Grand Hyatt and InterContinental hotels in Bangkok told guests they would have to leave, while The Four Seasons remains open but has closed all four of its restaurants and its cavernous lobby is empty except for a few wilted orchids.

Tensions escalated Wednesday, a day after the hotels closed their doors, amid an ongoing standoff between armed soldiers and anti-government protesters who have vowed to remain encamped in the center of Bangkok until the government resigns.

The "Red Shirt" protesters have occupied the capital's luxury hotel and shopping district for 19 days in their six-week bid to overthrow the government. Upscale malls closed almost immediately, as protesters transformed the area into a noisy and litter-strewn tent camp with outdoor showers and portable toilets for the thousands of supporters sleeping on the sidewalk.

The five-star hotels most affected by the protests are in the middle of the "Red Shirt" camp, which stretches for several city blocks. Protesters have barricaded access to the area by blocking major boulevards with a wall of tires topped with sharpened bamboo spears and backed up by trucks parked sideways.

The army says it is prepared to use greater force in any confrontations because of the danger posed by the weapons.

"The situation is very tense. We are relocating guests to other hotels for their safety," said Patty Lerdwittayaskul, a spokeswoman at the 380-room Grand Hyatt Erawan, which announced on Tuesday its closure until at least Saturday.

The nearby Holiday Inn and InterContinental also found safer accommodation for their guests and said new reservations would not be accepted until Monday.

Worst violence in 18 years
The protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, initially were camped in a historic district of Bangkok. But a failed April 10 attempt by security forces to flush protesters from that neighborhood erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in two decades. It left 25 dead and more than 800 wounded. It also prompted the protesters to consolidate in the shopping zone, which has become their strategic stronghold.

Tensions mounted again at the beginning of this week when the government deployed soldiers in combat gear near the shopping area, known as Rajprasong, to block a planned march to the nearby Silom Road business district. The march has been called off but a standoff remains that threatens greater damage to Thailand's vital tourism sector, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy.

"No more 'Land of Smiles' — the image has been destroyed," said Apichart Sankary, from the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, referring to Thailand's tourist-friendly nickname. "Tourists are frightened to see military personnel carrying guns. They can't believe this is Thailand."

Hotel occupancy normally at 60 percent or 70 percent this time of year has slipped to an average of 30 percent, Apichart said. But hotels in the protest zone were far below the average. Retailers and hotels in the area say they have lost tens of millions of dollars.

"You cannot stay here," a staffer in the InterContinental's lobby told a lone group of Egyptian guests who were due to check-out the following morning but were being transferred to a Marriott away from the protest zone.

Image: Protesters
Wong Maye-E  /  AP
Thai protesters said Tuesday that they would fortify their sprawling encampment in Bangkok's upscale hotel-and-shopping district before venturing out to "wage a big war" to topple the government they decry as illegitimate.

One of them, Walid Moustafa, a Cairo gem dealer, said he wasn't bothered by the protesters but found the relocation an inconvenience.

"It's been a little bit noisy. But the Red Shirts were very nice," he said. "They allowed our taxis to come through. I think it's safe — just don't stay in this hotel."

Down the street, men dressed in black who serve as guards for the Red Shirts manned razor-wired checkpoints — some in bulletproof vests. One section of pavement down the street from the Four Seasons was devoted to an arsenal of crude weaponry where Red Shirts sharpened hundreds of long bamboo rods and piled them into tall stacks. Broken up pavement stones were heaped in other piles.

Question of safety
"This could blow up any minute. Anybody that's here is here at their own risk," said 63-year-old American David M. McCollum, a Vietnam War veteran from Washington state who like many tourists brought his camera to the protest zone.

"Oh yeah, that's a Kodak moment," he said, snapping a picture as riot police gathered near Silom Road.

Four Seasons general manager Rainer Stampfer said occupancy was "absolutely minimal" and the hotel was not accepting any bookings until Monday. At lunchtime, the hotel's normally bustling lobby was empty with no one at the front desk.

"We have prepared hotel limousines to escort existing guests who wish to stay at a different hotel. We recommend that they stay elsewhere."

Call for elections
Like all hotels in the area, the Four Seasons has put up metal barricades to block protesters from spilling in. But it has not been able to escape the stench of about 30 portable toilets trucked in for the protesters.

"The mobile toilets next to our hotel send out a really bad smell," said one of the hotel's reservations agents, Pratchaya Kanphairee, who said they have asked protesters not to hang their drying laundry on the hotel's gates to no avail.

The Red Shirt protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call early elections.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.

They believe Abhisit's government is illegitimate because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.

They have hung a giant banner between two shuttered shopping malls that apologizes in English to Bangkok's foreign visitors: "Welcome to Thailand. We Just Want Democracy."

Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Protests in Thailand

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  1. A firefighter works to control the fire that burned all night at the CentralWorld shopping mall on Thursday, May 20. The mall was one of more than two dozen buildings set ablaze by protesters. Operations the day before evicted the protesters after a six week takeover of Bangkok's major shopping district. A curfew remains in effect for three more days in an attempt to quell the violence. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Protesters walk to government provided buses to bring them back to their home provinces on Thursday. Gunfire still crackled as troops moved to hunt down protesters who went on a rampage after a deadly crackdown on their camp Wednesday. Thousands of protesters who had sought refuge in a Buddhist temple had surrendered earlier to police. (Mast Irham / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A woman cries as she leans over the dead body of a protester killed in a gunbattle the day before at a Buddhist temple which had been turned into a shelter. (Christophe Archambault / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An anti-government protester piles tires on a fire at a shopping center on Wednesday, May 19 in Bangkok, Thailand. Anti-government protest leaders in Thailand surrendered to police on Wednesday after troops stormed their encampment, sparking clashes that killed at least six people and injured 60. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    A Thai soldier aims his rifle next to the dead body of a redshirt protester during an attack on the red shirt camp on May 19 in Bangkok. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Thai Red Shirt protest leader Jatuporn Prompan, center, announces their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red Shirt protesters weep as their leaders tell them that their protest must end. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Men walk in the deserted protest camp after the leaders of the Red Shirt movement announced their surrender in downtown Bangkok on May 19. (Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Anti-government protesters raise arms and walk to Thai soldiers as they leave their encampment to be transported home. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Red Shirt protesters use a table to shield themselves as they drag a wounded comrade to medics after he was shot by Thai military forces on May 19 in Bangkok. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An armored vehicle moves through barricades near the business district of Silom Road on Wednesday, May 19. The Thai army stormed a vast protest site in downtown Bangkok, smashing barricades and clashing with demonstrators. The ongoing clashes between troops and thousands of "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters since May 13 has left dozens dead and injured hundreds. (Ahmad Yusni / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A Thai Red Shirt protester runs beside a shop set ablaze a few hours before the leaders of the movement announced their surrender on Wednesday. (Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Smoke rises above the Bangkok skyline following a crackdown by Thai Army soldiers on the Red Shirt anti-government protesters' camp on Wednesday. A curfew is to be imposed across Bangkok at night, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon said, after a military offensive against anti-government protesters in the capital. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An injured Thai soldier is carried away near a barricade on Wednesday. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Two Buddhist monks are detained by Thai soldiers inside the protesters' camp on Wednesday. (Manan Vatsyayana / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The bodies of anti-government protesters lie covered on a street on Wednesday. (Wong Maye-E / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A soldier mans a weapon on an armoured vehicle during an operation to evict anti-government Red Shirt protesters from their encampment in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An unidentified photographer ducks under bullets during clashes on Wednesday. Freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi, 45, is reportedly among at least five people killed on Wednesday and a Canadian journalist was seriously wounded in a grenade blast during the onging clashes. (Chinafotopress / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Buddhist monks carry an injured Red Shirt anti-government protester in downtown Bangkok on Wednesday. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Red Shirt protesters carry a wounded comrade in downtown Bangkok on Wednesday. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thai troops and armored vehicles take positions on a road at the entrance of the business district during a rally by anti-government red shirt protesters. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Khattiya Sawasdipol cries and holds up a cap of her father, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, at a hospital in Bangkok on May 17. Sawasdipol, a rogue soldier and de facto military chief of Thailand's Red Shirt protest movement, died on Monday after being shot in the head on Thursday in an incident that sparked Bangkok's latest spate of violence. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A young girl carries a medical kit being handed out to anti-government Red Shirt supporters encamped in Bangkok's upscale shopping district on May 17. Thai protesters ignored calls by the government to leave their central Bangkok camp on Monday as troops tightened a security cordon around the area, raising fears of fresh bloodshed. At least 37 people died in the last five days of fighting. (Jerry Lampen / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Thai police officers remove a road block at the edge of Bangkok's victory monument intersection on May 17. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. An anti-government protester throws a tire toward a burned truck in central Bangkok on May 16. (Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Tires set on fire by anti-government protesters leave a trail of smoke in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday, May 16. Thai authorities said they plan to impose curfew in parts of Bangkok that have been wracked by clashes between Red Shirt protesters and the army. (Manish Swarup / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Anti-government supporters carry a man who was shot in the head during clashes with army soldiers in Bangkok on May 16. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Anti-government protesters grieve after another supporter was killed during clashes with soldiers in Bangkok on May 16. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Anti-government protesters make Molotov cocktails near Victory Monument in Bangkok on May 16. (Udo Weitz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Carrying a gun, a man takes cover behind a tire barricade during a confrontation between anti-government protesters and Thai soldiers in Bangkok on May 16. (Wason Wanichakorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A young Thai takes cover on a Bangkok street as shots are fired on May 16. The government blockaded the area around Ratchaprasong, Bangkok‘s upmarket commercial district, to force the protesters out but hard-line leaders refused to move. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Anti-government supporters stand in a cloud of smoke from a barricade of tires set ablaze near Bangkok's Victory Monument on May 16. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Anti-government protestors create a burning barricade on Rama IV road in Bangkok to stop soldiers from advancing on Saturday, May 15. Thai troops fired at protesters in a third day of fighting on Bangkok's streets. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. An anti-government protester uses a slingshot to fire a firecracker at Thai military forces during street clashes as the violence in central Bangkok. (Andy Nelson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Thai soldiers sleep in a normally bustling beer restaurant, in Bangkok on May 15. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Protesters shout for medical assistance as they run with a wounded colleague who was among at least three who were shot in the head as they faced off with Thai military officers on May 15. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A relative of Boonting Parnsira, 24, mourns at Rama Hospital as the violence in central part of the city escalates on May 15 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A demonstrator kicks a burning tire during clashes with security forces in Bangkok on May 15. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Soldiers escort an anti-government protester. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A tire burns as soldiers clash with anti-government protesters in Bangkok's financial district on Friday, May 14. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protesters fire homemade rockets at soldiers in an area near Lumpini Park on May 14. Rioting near the U.S. and Japanese embassies turned central Bangkok into a virtual war zone. (Wason Waintchakorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Soldiers fire rubber bullets into a crowd of protesters hurling rocks on May 14. Protesters were holding their ground as initial government attempts to blockade them showed no results, but instead set off sporadic violence that left one man dead and a high profile Red Shirt militant in critical condition from a gun shot to the head. (Wally Santana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Demonstrators are arrested by soldiers in downtown Bangkok on May 14. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Red Shirt protesters carry a man, who was shot during clashes with army soldiers, to safety past a destroyed vehicle near Lumpini Park on May 14. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. As shots rang out, a Thai policeman takes cover on May 13. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Major General Khattiya Sawasdipo, a controversial Red Shirt leader, is carried by supporters after being shot in the head at their fortified camp in Bangkok on May 13. Thai . Sawasdipol died on Monday May 17, hospital officials have said. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol during a patrol around the demonstrator's camp on Tuesday, May 11. Khattiya helped construct the barricades and protect it with his supporters. Sawasdipol died Monday May 17, four days after being shot in the head during heavy riots, hospital officials have said. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Protesters take part in rally inside their fortified camp in downtown Bangkok on May 11. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Anti-government protesters react to speeches as leaders discuss the reconciliation process at Bangkok's main shopping district on May 4. (Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Relatives of Police Cpl. Karnnuphat Lertchanpen, a traffic police officer, mourn his death at the Institute of Forensic Police General Hospital on May 8. Two Thai policemen died in attacks near the Red Shirt site in downtown Bangkok, which may put the government reconciliation attempt at risk. (Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Anti-government protesters shift their barricade to allow access to Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok on Friday, April 30. The 'Red Shirt' protesters searched the hospital, located near the barricades, the night before in a move widely condemned by Thais. Much of central Bangkok's commercial district has been closed down by the protests now in their seventh week. (Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Nurses makes phone calls and arrange paperwork to coordinate the transfer of patients from Chulalongkorn Hospital to another one in Bangkok on Friday. Chulalongkorn Hospital evacuated most of its patients after protesters stormed in with the mistaken belief that troops were hiding there. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Soldiers open fire at anti-government protesters during clashes on a highway in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday, April 28. Troops stopped a caravan of ‘Red Shirt’ demonstrators heading from the capital to a neighboring province by setting up road barriers and firing over and into the crowds. It was not immediately clear if the soldiers were using live ammunition or rubber bullets. The mostly rural and urban poor Red Shirts back ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and say the current government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power illegitimately with tacit military backing. (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. An injured protester is helped back through the barricades into the Red Shirt-occupied Ratchaprasong district on Wednesday. At least 16 protesters were wounded in the clashes. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. A wounded soldier, who later succumbed to his injuries and died, is carried on a stretcher during clashes with anti-government protesters on the outskirts of Bangkok on Wednesday. (Wason Wanichakorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. A suspected anti-government protester is arrested by a policeman during the crackdown.. (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. Protesters fire homemade rockets at soldiers on a highway in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Ahmad Yusni / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Soldiers face off against protesters. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Red Shirt protesters carry Thai national flags and red flags in a motorcycle convoy on their way to the northern suburbs of Bangkok. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. A woman wearing a T-shirt with a picture of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra stands near other anti-government protesters lining up to get a Red Shirt identity cards inside their barricade in Bangkok on April 27. (Eric Gaillard / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. Pro-government protesters carry a huge national flag during a rally at Victory Monument in Bangkok on April 26. () Back to slideshow navigation
  62. Anti-government Red Shirt supporters block a military truck to defend their base in Bangkok amid fears of crackdown early April 27. (Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. Anti-government protesters confront police in front of a makeshift barricade on April 23. Security forces and demonstrators faced-off at a major intersection after grenade attacks rattled Thailand's chaotic capital. (Sakchai Lalit / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. A Thai woman lies injured on the ground after several small explosions hit near a Red Shirt encampment on Thursday, April 22. A series of grenade blasts shook the district, wounding dozens and heightening tensions during a showdown between thousands of troops and anti-government protesters. The cause of the blasts was not immediately known. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Buddhist Monks pray at the Red Shirt camp at the entrance of Silom Road, Bangkok's financial district, on April 22. (Luis Ascui / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. Injured Thais attempt to flee after several explosions on April 22. Witnesses said the first of the explosions occurred at an elevated train station. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. Anti-government demonstrators look on from behind a makeshift barricade on April 21. Thailand's Prime Minister has said he is ready to negotiate with protesters seeking a change of government, but only when the demonstrators who have illegally occupied the city’s streets agree to abide by the law, his spokesman said. (David Longstreath / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Workers pass soldiers deployed to protect the banking and business district of Silom as anti-government Red Shirt protesters camped nearby threaten to march there on Monday, April 19. (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  69. Tourists walk next to barbed wire along Silom Road in Bangkok's financial district on April 19. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  70. Government supporters rally at Bangkok's Victory Monument on April 17. (Luis Ascui / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  71. One of the Red Shirt anti-government leaders, Arisman Pongruengrong, center, is helped to climb out of a hotel and escape a police raid on Friday, April 16. (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  72. Red Shirts gather during a memorial for the victims of clashes between protesters and Thai security forces near Democracy Monument on April 11. (Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  73. Anti-government Red Shirt protesters clash with security forces in central Bangkok on April 10. At least 15 people were killed and hundreds wounded in the confrontations. The protesters were calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and immediately hold elections for a new government. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  74. Red-shirted supporters of former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra face off with Thai riot police officers in central Bangkok on April 10. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  75. Red Shirt protesters battle with soldiers in central Bangkok. () Back to slideshow navigation
  76. Anti-government demonstrators wash tear gas from the eyes of a colleague. (Wason Waintchakorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  77. Protesters show bullets and empty shells that they say were collected after a clash with soldiers near the United Nations building in Bangkok on April 10. (Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  78. Demonstrators beat a Thai soldier during a clash in Bangkok on on April 10. (Sakchai Lalit / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  79. Soldiers confront demonstrators in Bangkok on April 10. The city's elevated mass transit system known as the Skytrain, which runs past one of the protest sites, closed all its stations as confrontation loomed. (David Longstreath / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  80. Soldiers carry an injured comrade during clashes with anti-government protesters on April 10. (Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  81. Soldiers recover between clashes with anti-government protesters in central Bangkok on April 10. (Damir Sagolj / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  82. Red Shirts wave at a police motorcade leaving the protest site in central Bangkok on April 10, 2010. (Natthawat Wongrat / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
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