Sun, Jun 08, 2014 - Page 4 News List

Thai coup and nighttime curfew rub off some of the magic of the ‘land of smiles’

AFP, BANGKOK

A street vendor sits next to mannequins outside a tailor’s shop as he waits for customers on the Khao San Road in Bangkok on May 29.

Photo: AFP

Thailand’s once-booming tourism industry is scrambling to arrest a slump in foreign visitor numbers after a military coup and a night-time curfew tarnished its reputation as the “Land of Smiles.”

While most tourists in the Southeast Asian nation barely noticed when the generals suddenly seized power on May 22 in a bloodless coup, the impact is starting to be felt, with many hotel rooms in the capital unoccupied.

“Hotels were dramatically hit,” said a manager at a luxury hotel in Bangkok whose occupancy rates have fallen below 30 percent, compared with more than 70 percent a year ago.

Foreign visitor numbers nationwide slumped 10.6 percent last month compared with a year earlier, to about 1.74 million, the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports reported on Friday.

Bookings had already suffered because of months of political unrest and the government has lowered its forecast for tourist arrivals this year to 25.9 million, down from an initial target of 28 million.

Asian tourists have been particularly spooked, with visitors from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan quick to cancel.

“Hong Kong people treat safety very importantly because traveling is part of their daily life,” said Steve Huen, executive director of EGL Tours, which has stopped promoting package trips to Thailand due to an industry advisory.

The Hong Kong government has issued a “red” travel alert, urging citizens to avoid non-essential travel.

Drawn by its sun-soaked beaches and hedonistic nightlife, the kingdom welcomed a record 26.5 million foreign visitors last year.

However, months of street protests and political bloodshed have taken their toll on the key tourism sector, particularly in the capital, Bangkok.

On Khao San Road, one of the busiest hubs for backpackers in Southeast Asia, local businesses are suffering.

“After the coup, I have only earned a little. Things are harder than before,” stallholder Phongsathorn Wongchuen said.

The junta and tourist officials have now launched a campaign to try to reassure tourists that it is safe to visit.

Royal Thai Army commander-in-chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a weekly address to the nation on Friday that foreigners were welcome — but only if they behave.

“They shouldn’t come to Thailand to do anything illegal,” he said, criticizing foreign films for portraying the kingdom in a sleazy light.

“They came for drugs and for bad things,” he said. “I feel embarrassed. Aren’t you embarrassed when they put it in their foreign films?”

In an attempt to lure back tourists, the curfew has now been lifted in most major beach resorts, including Pattaya, Koh Samui, Phuket and Krabi.

Ravers will also be able to dance until dawn at the full moon party on Koh Phangan after the junta granted a curfew exemption for June 9-13.

Since deposing an elected government, the ruling generals have curtailed civil liberties by banning public protests, censoring media and temporarily detaining hundreds of critics for questioning.

However, international flights are still in operation, with those traveling to and from airports among the few exempt from the curfew.

“We feel that it is safer than in France. Even if there were some riots, they were covered a lot on TV, we feel really safe and we haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary,” said Yoann Vella, from France.

One issue is travel insurance, which may not cover holidaymakers during periods of unrest, particularly if their government has warned against non-essential travel.

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