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Thai tourism seeking recovery from protests

The Red Shirt anti-government protesters have gone home, but Thailand's tourism industry is still seeing red.
Image: Tourists view damaged area in downtown B
Tourists view damaged area in downtown Bangkok on May 22 after "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters were forced to leave the area during a recent deadly crackdown. Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Red Shirt anti-government protesters have gone home, but Thailand's tourism industry is still seeing red.

Armed soldiers, smoky streets and looted stores were the sad finale to two months of street protests seeking to force new elections. Those images have lingered in many minds, especially for tourists, a little over a week since the protests ended.

Thailand now has the challenges of repairing its image and its tourism industry.

The number of visitors dropped significantly since the protests closed down Bangkok's main shopping and tourist district in early April. Forecasts for this year were revised to 12 million visitors, down from 15 million, according to the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations.

The political standoff and the subsequent violent clashes caused losses of about 60 billion to 70 billion baht ($1.9 billion to $2.2 billion) in tourism-related revenues, according to Atthachai Burakamkovit, permanent secretary of the Tourism and Sports Ministry. The government is talking with trade organizations to pinpoint the exact amount of the losses.

"Different trade associations have their own estimates to serve their own purposes," said Atthachai.

'I haven't seen anything this bad'
Already, the government has earmarked 5 billion baht ($154 million) to help tourism-related businesses affected by the turmoil and rioting. The package is awaiting the Cabinet's approval.

"Using government funds to help private companies is always a difficult situation. And I don't think anybody will hold their breath while this occurs," said Bill Heinecke, chairman and CEO of Minor International, which operates 16 hotels in Thailand, including the luxury Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok.

The Four Seasons, on the front lines of the protests, was forced to close for seven weeks and expects to lose at least 100 million baht ($3 million) as a result. Several other nearby upmarket hostelries were also shuttered.

"In my 40 years in the hotel industry, I haven't seen anything this bad," said Prakit Chinamornpong, president of the Thai Hotels Association.

The number of guest check-ins indicates a dire situation. Prakit said Bangkok's occupancy rate for May dipped to about 10 percent. The hotel association wants the government to help loan repayments, fixing the interest rate at a 3 percent for at least a year, and to help workers.

During the turmoil, major travel agencies suspended tours to Bangkok, and that had a ripple effect on other destinations in Thailand. JTB Group, Japan's largest travel agency, only resumed ticket sales to Thailand on May 27, after a month's stoppage. Japanese made up the second-largest group of inbound tourists to Thailand in 2009, with almost 1 million visitors.

Prakit said the situation was worse than the 1997 financial crisis, the bird flu epidemic and even the occupation of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport in 2008 by the People's Alliance for Democracy, the Red Shirts' ideological rivals.

"It took us five months to recover from PAD's 9-day airport closure. But this time it'll be at least six months — or even more," said Prakit.

'We've got to start all over again'
As the result of the airport closure, the total number of inbound visitors in 2009 fell to below pre-crisis projections. The 12 million arrival forecast for this year would see Thailand return to pre-2006 figures.

Any previous efforts by the government to drum up confidence abroad since has been futile.

"It doesn't matter how many times the prime minister went to Japan to boost the country's image earlier this year, we've got to start all over again," said Prakit.

Bangkok's Montien Hotel saw its occupancy tumble from a February high of 80 percent to 3 percent as of May, said resident manager Somsak Akaktanond. Last week only 10 of its 475 rooms were occupied, and they were regulars.

"There are no new customers. And many have canceled their bookings for the next couple of months," said Somsak.

For the short term, hotels are now trying to attract Asian tourists, believing that they are more understanding of the situation.

"Memory is very short-lived. We've seen events like the tsunami (which killed about 5,000 people in Thailand in 2004) and other incidents like the Bali bombing ... They pass very quickly," said Heinecke.

The Thai tourism industry has managed to recover from the past recent crises.

"The fundamentals of Thailand are still extremely strong," said Heinecke. "I don't think Thai people have changed. I don't think Thai food has changed. And I don't think the destination has changed."

Some tourists are not fazed. French visitor Melanie Turleque, 33, was in Bangkok when the clashes took place.

"Everybody we talked to — Thai people — they're saying it's OK as long as you didn't go into the area ... I'm not afraid," she said. She had also been to Samui and Chiang Mai as part of her trip and found the two places to be "peaceful," remote from problems.

"Thailand is such a friendly and beautiful place," said Israeli Issac Cohen, 57, who came to take part in a futsal tournament. "I would suggest to all Thailand's people to just smile like before."