Tue, Dec 30, 2008 - Page 11 News List

FEATURE: Political woes hit Phuket tourism hard

AFP , PHUKET, THAILAND

Bar girls wait for customers at the usually bustling Bangla road on Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand, on Dec. 11.

PHOTO: AFP

As Thai women in tartan schoolgirl outfits writhe listlessly around poles on the bar top, Dawan Blades scribbles in a black ledger and shakes her head. The numbers simply don’t add up.

This year’s tourist season on Thailand’s biggest island of Phuket looks set to be the worst since Blades took over Sharky’s Bar six years ago.

Located at the entrance of a huge bar complex in Patong Beach, Phuket’s busiest tourist town, Sharky’s should be standing room only. Instead, barely half the bar stools are occupied.

“Business is down, darling. Dead, no good,” Blades drawls.

Phuket, along with the rest of Thailand, is reeling from the aftermath of political protests in Bangkok that brought the capital’s two main airports to a standstill for eight days from late November to early this month.

Images of hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers desperate to leave the country were beamed around the world, prompting droves of tourists to cancel holidays planned for this month and next.

The airport siege could not have come at a worse time. Peak season in Thailand runs from November to February and industry officials believe it will be at least four months before business recovers.

Sunbathers still dot the sandy white beaches of Phuket, but in far fewer numbers than is usual at this time of year. Still, it’s a dream come true for some holidaymakers.

“It’s good for us because you don’t have to battle with anyone else. They’re struggling to sell so you get everything for really low prices,” said Chenae King from western Australia.

Many hotels have halved their room rates to drum up business, but occupancy still dropped to 50 percent from an average of 80 percent, the Thai Hotel Association said.

On the streets of Patong, entertainers work hard to draw customers into bars and nightclubs.

Flourishing red feather boas and flaunting plunging necklines, transvestites from Tangmo cabaret are spending a lot of time these days pounding the footpaths and posing posed for photos with passers-by.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference.

“Business has really gone downhill,” said the cabaret’s owner, Chanok Kaewseenuan, who is better known as Tangmo. “It’s much worse than after the tsunami.”

The tsunami, which killed 5,400 people in Thailand in December 2004 and a total of 220,000 people across Asia, has become the benchmark for the drop in business.

Tourism bounced back relatively quickly after the natural disaster. This time, it may take longer as the global economic downturn hits purse strings and slows international travel.

Officials believe they can weather the latest storm, however long.

“Our experience with the tsunami has shown us how to cope, how to survive,” said Sethaphan Buddhani, director of the Thailand Tourism Authority in Phuket.

“We help each other, not only the government but also the private sector and banks. We help each other in terms of loans for example. We will extend the hotels’ loans by at least three years,” Buddhani said.

The government is mulling a US$625 million rescue package for the tourism industry amid warnings from the Thai Hotels Association that 100,000 hotel workers could lose their jobs.

Lay-offs are a last resort in Phuket though. Both Chanok and Blades pledged to keep their staff on, even if it means dipping into savings.

“I’m not going to cut salaries now. I’ll use money from before to pay staff and wait for better times,” Blades said.

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