Newly elected Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said yesterday he was sorry for the damage done to the country by the weeklong occupation of Bangkok’s two airports last month that stranded up to 350,000 passengers and caused massive economic damage.
One of the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group is a lawmaker with Abhisit’s Democrat Party, which was until Monday the main opposition party in the kingdom.
“We regret the incident and will not allow it to happen again,” Abhisit told Thai tourism industry representatives yesterday, two days after parliament elected him prime minister.
“I am fully aware that the tourism sector was hit hard and it had an unreasonable loss of revenue, therefore I will create national unity and national reconciliation,” he said.
During the airport closures Abhisit stayed silent and did not condemn the PAD action, and yesterday he defended the military, which refused to support the last government and disperse the protesters.
Abhisit said the army had been put in a “difficult position” but did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, the palm-fringed island of Samui normally fills up for the holidays, but what stands out these days is its emptiness.
The sprawling Tongsai Bay resort, where guests are shuttled around in golf carts, has reduced hours for staff and even installed lower-wattage light bulbs to reduce electricity bills to cut costs amid the slowdown, assistant manager Chonlatee Nakamadee said.
“We can’t believe how quiet it is here,” said Karen Jack, a 37-year-old secretary from London. “There’s been a couple of nights when we’ve been the only people in the restaurant.”
The hangover from political unrest is not going away: Cancelations are pouring in from around the world — just as the high season is starting and the economy is slowing amid the global financial meltdown.
Tourism authorities predict business will be worse next year than after the tsunami in December 2004. Airlines and luxury hotels have slashed rates, some offering two nights for the price of one.
High-level staff at one Bangkok hotel have taken 25 percent to 30 percent salary cuts.
The slowdown could push Thailand’s economy into recession. The government forecast a contraction of up to 1 percent in the first quarter of next year and zero growth in the second quarter. Tourism brought in about US$16 billion in revenue last year, about 6.5 percent of the country’s GDP.
Bangkok is especially hard hit.
The loudest sound in the elegant lobby of The Peninsula is a toy train chugging through a gingerbread village near a 8.5m Christmas tree. The hotel has temporarily closed its bar and two of its six restaurants.
The lebua hotel, where occupancy is 16 percent compared to 80 percent this time last year, has stopped all advertising until June.
Thai hotels typically average 85 percent occupancy during the holidays, but many in Bangkok are less than 20 percent full, said Juthaporn Rerngronasa, a deputy governor at the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Her agency has devised a two-part strategy to revive Thailand’s image as a laid-back paradise.
First: a big apology. The tourism authority is compiling a list of e-mail addresses of stranded passengers, collected from airlines and hotels. It plans to send a message “to express our regrets,” Juthaporn said.
Second: big discounts. The authority has asked hotels and airlines to reduce high season rates and fares. AirAsia is collaborating with an offer of 100,000 free tickets to Thailand under a regional marketing campaign — “Get Your Baht to Thailand.” Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways are offering domestic roundtrip fares in the US$100 range to the country’s most popular beaches and Chiang Mai.