Thailand's worst floods in five decades are bearing down on the capital just as the high season for tourism gets under way, putting this year's official target of 19 million visitors in doubt, government and tourist officials said on Tuesday.
Even before Bangkok's Don Muang airport said it would have to close temporarily, Tourism Minister Chumphol Silpa-archa said tourist arrivals could be 500,000 to 1 million below target.
"We have to assess the situation again, after the floods recede," Chumphol said. "Some foreign tourists still want to travel to destinations outside Bangkok. Some can fly directly from their country."
While Bangkok is braced for the worst, Phuket, Pattaya and Samui, Thailand's biggest draw cards for tourists, have escaped the deluge that has swamped central and northern provinces, including the ancient city of Ayutthaya.
Tourism is a vital part of Thailand's economy, Southeast Asia's second-biggest, employing about 15 percent of the workforce and contributing about 6 percent of GDP.
Following peaceful elections this year, the sector had been looking forward to a fresh start after six years of political unrest, including bloody protests that shut down parts of central Bangkok for two months in 2010 before the army moved in.
Most of Bangkok's tourist attractions and shopping areas have not been affected by flooding but the Chao Phraya river that winds through the city is high and canals have burst their banks in some northern districts.
Don Muang airport, used by budget airlines for domestic flights and by private planes, said on Tuesday it would temporarily halt operations from 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) due to flooding in its district that was making access difficult for passengers and employees.
It said it expected to reopen on Nov. 1 although it wasn't clear why the situation would be any better by then.
The government has its flood crisis headquarters at the airport and ministers discussed on Tuesday whether they ought to relocate, but they decided to stay put for now.
NEW BOOKINGS DOWN
Bangkok's main international airport, Suvarnabhumi, was operating as normal inside a reinforced earthen dike three metres (9.8 feet) high.
International airlines such as Japan's All Nippon Airways Co Ltd and Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd are still flying to Bangkok through Suvarnabhumi.
Even so, tour operators fear the worst.
"There have been fewer new bookings," Sisdivachr Cheewarattanporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) told Reuters.
"We had a good number of bookings earlier this year but from this point on, if the floods get worse, we expect a drop of at least 20 percent. There have already been cancellations in some markets, like Taiwan," he said.
"India, Russia and mainland China are still coming. But Europe less and less."
Despite the unrest, Thailand attracted 15.8 million tourists in 2010, generating 585 billion baht ($18.9 billion) in revenue, according to government data.
"The 19 million target this year is now impossible. At best we can probably do 18 million," Sisdivachr said.
Ronnachit Mahattanapreut, senior vice president for finance at Central Plaza Hotel, said his group was starting to see some impact.
Average occupancy at its hotels in the fourth quarter was now expected to be flat on the 60-65 percent seen in 2010.
Much will depend on the success of efforts to protect Bangkok from the deluge, he said.
"If the flooding lasts longer than expected, holidaymakers and those here for business meetings are going to have second thoughts about booking."
"Food and water at our hotels is no problem. We have enough supplies to last for months if the worst comes to the worst. Our hotels in Phuket and Pattaya are picking up because some people have gone there to escape the floods," he added.
Luxury hotels along the Chao Phraya river, including the Mandarin Oriental, are open for business. They have not been affected by flooding or high river levels so far and have put up barriers to protect against inundation.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat; Editing by Alan Raybould.