Thai tourism hit by instability - 25 Oct 09

Al Jazeera English
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In what is supposed to be Thailand's peak tourist season, the long tail boats along the Chao Phraya river, in the heart of Bangkok, are mostly empty these days.

Tour operators have never seen it so quiet in October, Al Jazeera's Aela Callan reports.

Athiraj, a tour operator in Bangkok, said: "The number of tourists has decreased at least 50 per cent. Normally this time of year is the start of the high season and a lot of tourists are coming. But now it feels like we are still in the low season."

Around the Grand Palace, one of the Thai capital's main tourist attractions, the city's famous tuk-tuks sit idle, as do many street vendors who are barely scraping together a living selling souvenirs.

"This year is the worst. It's actually the worst of the worst," Jintana, a tour-boat operator, said.

"Normally I have so many tourists. The number is so enormous I do not have time to eat."

The downturn is expected to cost Thailand $4bn.

Most blame the ongoing political upheaval in the country which has left the $14bn-a-year tourist industry feeling the heat.

The political troubles are highly visible.

Red-shirted supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, regularly hold rallies outside popular tourist attractions, catching many visitors unawares.

It was the closure of Bangkok airport this time last year by Thaksins yellow-shirted opponents that has lingered in the minds of many foreign visitors.

In most tourist areas of Thailand, locals are hanging their hopes on a surge of last-minute bookings to lift them out of the slump.

Bangkok's largest hotel remains optimistic, though, and will continue with planned renovations in a vote of confidence for Thai tourism.

Roel Constantino, of the Shangri La Bangkok, told Al Jazeera: "If it's the higher end of the market, because they have a choice and because they have the resources, the perception of political stability will probably come into play more than the economies of it."

Clearly, it appears one thing above all else will bring tourists back to the Land of Smiles: stablity.

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