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.
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.