Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tourism industry fears further unrest

Protests could become permanent fixtures

By: WORANUJ MANEERUNGSEE
Published: 15/12/2008 at 12:00 AM

The reputation of Thailand's tourism industry, which has already suffered from the seizure of two main airports by anti-government protesters, could be further damaged if political unrest becomes a pattern, say industry executives.

Laurent Kuenzle, group managing director of Asian Trails, one of the leading inbound tour operators in Thailand, said that safety would be a key factor.

Srayuth: Foreign guests 70% of total

"Basically, I don't worry about political conflict, but about the result of political problems. Mostly, it is about the safety issue here. If it's not safe, tourists won't come," he said.

Srayuth Ekahitanonda, a founder of the Let's Sea beachfront restaurant and the Let's Sea Hua Hin Al Fresco Resort boutique hotel in Hua Hin, expressed concern about the current political situation.

A new government is now likely to be formed by the opposition Democrat party. However, red-shirted protesters, who supported the previous government led by the dissolved People Power Party (PPP), could cause fresh disruptions if they oppose the new government.

"Business operators always prepare for business accidents," said Mr Srayuth. "But if it is not an accident but a pattern, we cannot handle the problem. Only the whole nation can."

Mr Kuenzle noted that international media including CNN and the BBC used the negative term "mob" to describe the yellow-shirted protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy at the airports.

Over a short period of this high season, which runs from December to February, he has seen tourist arrivals halved since Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airport were seized from Nov 25 to Dec 2.

But he remains confident in the Thai tourism industry. If governments and insurance firms changed their advisories for travelling to Thailand, the situation would improve, he said.

He said Thailand's top beach destinations such as Phuket, Krabi and Phangnga seemed to have been affected less by the airport seizures than other destinations like Bangkok and the surrounding provinces. European tourists can fly directly by charter flights to Phuket, while other destinations such as provinces in the North, Hua Hin and Pattaya rely on Bangkok's airport.

Mr Srayuth, whose hotel had a 50% drop in occupancy in December, said a protest against the new administration would make matters worse. A pattern would be established for political party supporters never to accept governments by their opponents.

He estimated that the closure of the two Bangkok airports would affect his business for at least two or three months. He said his guests told him they would like to stay at his hotel but their tour operators had rerouted them to lower-risk destinations. In the high season about 70% of the resort's guests are foreigners.

When the airports were seized, tourism industry executives feared that 100,000 workers in the sector could lose their jobs because the damage would last until the middle of next year.

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