Chinese tourists head to Thailand despite bombing fears

BANGKOK - Busloads of visitors from China flocked to Bangkok's glittering Grand Palace on Friday but, days after a bomb at another of the city's popular attractions killed five Chinese tourists, Thailand's biggest spending holidaymakers are rattled.

Monday's attack on a Hindu shrine, particularly popular with Chinese devotees, did not prevent Jay Chou and his family from travelling to the kingdom, though it has left them on edge.

"We are closely following the news, we shouldn't go to any place which is dangerous," said the 18-year-old engineering student from Shanghai outside the palace where an already heavy security presence was boosted in response to the bombing.

The attack on the shrine, apparently by a still-unidentified young man who placed a backpack with explosives under a bench, killed 20 people and injured more than 100 others.

Most of the victims were ethnic Chinese tourists from around Asia, with five of the dead from mainland China and two from Hong Kong.

While Thai authorities have yet to make an arrest or say which group was behind it, they have repeatedly said it was clearly aimed at damaging the tourism industry.

Though in the midst of confusing and sometimes contradictory information on the investigation, one message from authorities has been clear - Chinese tourists were not the target.

For the country's ruling generals, losing their biggest spending group of visitors is a hit the kingdom cannot afford as it struggles to revive a sclerotic economy.

Tourism accounts for around 10 per cent of Thailand's economy.

Chinese holidaymakers spend far more than any other group of visitor - 190 billion baht (S$7.4 billion) in the first half of this year, according to Thailand's tourism authority.

This is more than five times the spending of Malaysians and Brits, the next two largest spenders.

And the number of Chinese visitors soared by 138 per cent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2014, when Bangkok was paralysed by often violent protests before May's military coup.

Thailand is counting on a surge in Chinese visitors in October for the annual National Day holiday, a week-long break in China when hundreds of millions travel domestically and abroad.

Mixed response 

So soon after the attack in politically volatile Thailand, which before the coup experienced repeated outbreaks of deadly street violence in a decade-long power struggle, it is difficult to gauge the long-term impact of the blast on tourism.

At a hotel popular with Chinese tourists in Bangkok's Chinatown, assistant manager Praparat Boonsai said some guests had been frightened away.

"We are worried because our customers are cancelling from China," she told AFP, saying that six checked out early after Monday's blast and several had cancelled upcoming trips by phone.

Woranut Srisamboon, a spokesman for the Thai Chinese Tourist Association, said some tour groups had cancelled trips while holiday agents in China were constantly calling to check on security.

Woranut's VLC Travel company, catering to mainland Chinese tourists, reported 20 groups of up to 40 people strong had pulled out since Monday.

But Woranut said the impact so far had been limited, putting it down to a "special relationship" between China and Thailand.

"Thailand and China are like brother and sister," he said with a smile, saying tourism authorities in both countries were in constant touch.

While Hong Kong warned its residents after the attack to avoid travelling to Bangkok, China's national tourism body only cautioned its nationals to "be aware, pay attention to travel safety, and choose reasonable travel routes".

In Bangkok's historic quarter on Friday, long lines of Chinese tourists followed tour guides, many dressed in identical hats and holding up umbrellas to block the midday sun.

Happily chattering in Mandarin, these groups of travellers had stuck to their long-planned holiday itineraries.

At the entrance of the sprawling palace compound, Chinese tourist Lily Chu said she had continued with her holiday plans despite being worried about safety.

The 33-year-old Buddhist even went to pray at the bombed shrine on Wednesday, believing it was important to pay respects to the dead.

"I prayed for people who died... (so they can) rest in peace," she said.