Protests deal new blow to Thai tourism industry

BANGKOK (AFP) - From backpacker districts to high-end hotels, more than a month of opposition protests in the Thai capital are taking their toll on the kingdom's tourism sector, with hundreds of thousands of travellers staying away.

Dozens of countries have issued travel warnings related to the mass street demonstrations against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, mostly advising people to exercise caution near the main rally sites.

The political situation reduced the influx of inbound tourists in the month to mid-December by an estimated 300,000 people - eight percent - compared with the number expected, Yutthachai Soonthronrattanavate, president of the Association of Domestic Travel, told AFP.

"Entrepreneurs are concerned that the protests might not end before January or February," he said.

The protests - aimed at toppling Ms Yingluck and curbing the influence of her older brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra - have left five dead and more than 200 wounded in street violence, although tensions have abated in recent days.

The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and a royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in self-exile.

Risk-averse Asian holidaymakers are among those choosing to stay away due to the unrest.

The local business association for the Khao San Road backpacker district said in early December that more than 50 percent of bookings for November and December had been cancelled as low-end tourists abandoned their Thailand trip or went elsewhere in the country.

High-end hotel chains, including the Mandarin Oriental and the Accor group, said they had experienced cancellations.

Yet many travellers, particularly those from Europe and North America, are unfazed by - or unaware of - the crisis.

"I didn't know about it. Friends at home saw the news and warned me. When I arrived there were riots going on. I was quite naive," said Alex Young, 23, as she ordered a cocktail at a bar on Khao San Road, while protesters gathered at the nearby Democracy Monument.

Her travelling companion, Hannah Steenson, 24, hails from Northern Ireland and was unruffled.

"We're used to bomb scares there," she said, but added that Khao San Road was quieter than when she visited last year.

Local businesses said they had noticed the impact of the protests - with many expressing frustration at the effects of the protracted political crisis.

"Last year, every weekend was party day. Now even Friday and Saturday are quiet. Every business is the same - no customers," Noom Manachai, manager of the Hippie De Bar restaurant on Khao San Road, told AFP.

Many of the key rally sites are just minutes from major tourist attractions in the city's historic district.

Outside parliament on Tuesday, a confused Polish tourist told AFP he was "surprised but not afraid" to find himself in the middle of a protest.

"Asia is very safe if you compare with places like South America, or even Poland... I was not aware at all that this was going on, but it doesn't bother me," he said, declining to give his name.

Tourism likely to bounce back

Asia-wide, tourist industry recoveries from high-profile shocks - such as SARS outbreaks, the Japanese tsunami and the Philippine typhoon - are speeding up, experts say.

"While events can quickly displace business, the bounce back time is shortening," said Bill Barnett, managing director of tourism consultancy firm C9 Hotelworks.

"What's hard for Thailand at present is the shroud of uncertainty that hangs over Brand Bangkok."

Not only are Asian travellers less "risk resistant" than, for example, North Americans, hotels are struggling as lucrative corporate business is extremely sensitive to negative events, he said.

"Once the travel warnings roll out these are the first in line to cancel," said Barnett.

It is the latest in a series of setbacks to the kingdom's tourist-friendly image as the "Land of Smiles" in recent years, which have also included devastating floods, deadly bus and boat accidents, and growing concerns about crimes against foreigners.

But Thailand is "incredibly resilient" and likely to recover, said Amanda Hyndman, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Bangkok.

The kingdom attracted a record 22 million tourists last year.

Its popularity has endured several episodes of civil strife, including in late 2008 when hordes of frustrated travellers were stranded after protesters staged a nine-day blockade of Bangkok's two airports.

Three years ago, mass opposition protests that turned deadly - with dozens killed in a military crackdown - also dealt a major setback to Thailand's tourism industry, but it quickly recovered.

"Thailand is fundamentally a very strong tourist destination," said Patrick Basset, senior vice president of Accor in Southeast Asia.

"Unfortunately, the main drawback so far these past few years has been the political instability."

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