Protests deal new blow to Thai tourism industry

Protests deal new blow to Thai tourism industry

BANGKOK - 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.

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