Thailand bullish on tourism after muted month for king's death

Tourists and locals light candles in the city centre to mark the beginning of the annual Yi Peng festival in the popular tourist city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand on Nov 13, 2016.
Tourists and locals light candles in the city centre to mark the beginning of the annual Yi Peng festival in the popular tourist city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand on Nov 13, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AFP, REUTERS) - Tourist arrivals to Thailand have not been hit by a strict mourning period for late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, authorities said Monday (Nov 14), as curbs on entertainment and celebration imposed since his death one month ago were eased.

Bhumibol's death on Oct 13 after a seven-decade reign has sparked mass displays of grief and left the politically-divided nation without its only unifying figure.

The junta, which seized power in 2014, instituted an initial month-long mourning period, which lapsed on Monday.

In the last month Thais have worn black or white, bars have closed early, many sporting events and concerts have been cancelled with television networks even ordered to pull soap operas from their schedules.

The measures had raised fears that tourists would be deterred from visiting a country renowned for its wild nightlife and carefree atmosphere, just as peak visitor season gets into swing.

But Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said a target set before the king's death of a record 32 million arrivals for 2016 - up from 30 million last year - remained in reach.

"So far numbers have not dropped, that's from the surveys we did and from numbers from overseas offices," he told AFP.

"The government wants life to go on and we also want that," he added.

Despite the month-long restrictions on entertainment and celebration, authorities have also struck a pragmatic note aware of the potential to damage the cash-cow tourism sector - a rare bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy.

A similar pragmatism has emerged in the country's red light districts with venues turning down the music and go-go dancers swapping their usually garish outfits for black bikinis and dresses.

Despite the easing of restrictions on entertainment, festivities are likely to remain comparatively muted for the forseeable future.

Thais will mark the annual Loy Krathong religious festival on Monday evening, a picturesque celebration where millions of Thais celebrate the end of the so-called rainy season by floating small rafts decorated with candles, incense and flowers.

But fireworks have been forbidden, deemed not in keeping with the sombre national mood.

"We have asked for celebrations to be muted this year because this is a sensitive time for the country," Patarut Dardarananda, permanent secretary at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, told Reuters. "City hall has asked that people not set off fireworks and firecrackers to respect the mourning period."

"Authorities will enforce... the order banning the lighting of fireworks," deputy national police spokesman Police Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen told reporters, adding those who breach it face up to three years in jail.

At Bangkok's famed Lumpini Park, vendors selling the floating baskets were scarce. "This year is not like most years, we have to be respectful"said vendor Kwanjai Weelai.

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, where the festival usually draws tens of thousands of tourists, locals said they were expecting smaller crowds.

"Since he (the king) passed away business has gone down a little bit," Tik Srirat, a hotel owner in the town told AFP.

"But as an owner I am not too concerned about it because of the circumstances - we all feel deeply about the king." Many Thai websites on Monday also switched back to colour after a month of adopting monochrome tones.