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Thailand's political chaos keeps tourists home

The bellboy yawned as he stood sentry at the five-star hotel's doors. The hostess checked her long red nails and looked longingly at the empty driveway.
Thailand Tourism Blues
Thailand's ongoing political crisis has left the country rudderless, and has threatened Thailand's vital tourism industry, which brought in roughly $16 billion in revenue last year.Apichart Weerawong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bellboy yawned as he stood sentry at the five-star hotel's doors. The hostess checked her long red nails and looked longingly at the empty driveway.

It was another quiet day at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, thanks in part to the noisy political protests across town.

Tourism has been hit hard by Thailand's political crisis, which has seen the prime minister removed from office, a state of emergency imposed and lifted, key airports shut down by demonstrators and tenacious anti-government protesters occupying the grounds of the prime minister's office for three weeks.

Parliament's scheduled selection of a new prime minister Wednesday seems unlikely to put an end to tensions, as the protest alliance has already rejected the choice of Somchai Wongsawat, who currently holds the job in a caretaker capacity.

Many fear a prolonged crisis could further weaken the tourism sector, which brought in roughly $16 billion in revenue last year, about 6.5 percent of Thailand's gross domestic product.

Governments overseas have issued warnings about traveling to Thailand. Hotel occupancy has fallen by 40 percent, according to the Thai Hotels Association. International arrivals are down 30 percent from this time last year, said the Association of Thai Travel Agents.

Thai Airways is flying with 20 percent fewer passengers than the same period last year, company officials said. The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the city's most famous hotel, has vacancy rates around 50 percent, the manager told reporters.

A weak global economy was already expected to take a chunk out of tourism. The political chaos, which has left one dead and dozens injured, has only made things worse.

"We're worried, of course, but what can we do?" said Apichart Sankary of the Association of Thai Travel Agents. "We have had crises before ... but this is the first time it's been really bad."

A&F Tour, a travel agency in Bangkok, has had three groups cancel their trips for November, costing the company nearly $12,000.

"We're a small company so that's a lot," said Franz Dobersberger, the managing director.

If the chaos drags into the key holiday season, the Tourism Authority of Thailand fears the number of tourists this year will fall nearly 8 percent to 14 million. The group has been holding weekly "crisis management meetings" with trade leaders since last month.

While the protests have been mostly limited to the prime minister's compound and nearby areas in the capital, Bangkok, the ramifications have been felt elsewhere in the country.

Protesters briefly shut down airports in the popular southern beach resorts of Phuket and Krabi, and threatened action at the capital's main international airport, but never followed through.

Despite all the uncertainty, Thailand does not feel under siege and most people have carried on with life as normal. In Bangkok, traffic still crowds the busy streets, sidewalk noodle vendors still do brisk business, and bars still overflow at night.

The tourists trickling into Thailand shrug off talk of a political crisis.

"I know there have been some problems, but I'm not scared," said Valentina Lupano, 21, sitting in a crowded backpacker cafe. It may be an ordeal for the Thai people, she said, "but for me, it's not a problem."

That's not the case for nearby shopkeepers.

"Travelers aren't buying gifts like before," said Charin Vinitsom, owner of a clothing store on Bangkok's Khao San road, a famous haven for budget travelers. "They used to spend much more money. Now, it's a little quiet."

The crisis began last month when the People's Alliance for Democracy, a strident anti-government group, occupied Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's compound and called for him to leave office. They accused Samak of being a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup after street demonstrations by the same group.

Two weeks later, Samak was forced to resign for violating the constitution by accepting money to host TV cooking shows while in office. Political party bickering put off an effort to select a successor last Friday.

The caretaker government is well aware of how badly the unrest has hurt tourism.

Acting Prime Minister Somchai lifted a state of emergency Sunday, 12 days after it was imposed, to "bring back the smile to the country once again, as we are called 'The Land of Smiles.'"

"We have to restore outsiders' confidence, especially tourists, that we are a peaceful country and have no more conflict," he said.

Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotels Association, ticked off other blows the industry has weathered: the downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks, the SARS epidemic in 2003, the tsunami in 2004.

"We have never had business as bad as it now," he said.