Thai Tourism Improves But Political Unrest Remains

It appears that Thailand's tourist sector has improved this summer due to an increase in foreign arrivals, but operators remain wary of any political unrest that could drag the sector down again.

Estimated figures have been dropping steadily since early 2009. In February, The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) anticipated that the number of tourists visiting Thailand in 2009 would drop to 14 million (from 16 million in 2008) due  to the economic slowdown.

In addition to the global economy, the closure of the Suvarhabhumi and Don Meuang airports  late last year due to protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, heavily damaged the country's image. The TAT estimates the protests cost $4 billion in lost revenue and caused 1 million foreign visitors to cancel their plans to visit Thailand.

April of this year saw more political unrest in Bangkok, during the traditional new year holiday, causing several countries to issue travel warnings. The new wave of protests were particularly ill timed, as the three-day holiday normally stimulates local spending significantly

In June the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) cut its forecast for tourist arrivals this year to 11.5 million, down 21 percent from 14.5 million in 2008. But now it seems that operators are much more optimistic.

"We are more hopeful of a recovery now. Some markets such as Japan and China have picked up since late July, although other markets are still quiet," ATTA chief Surapol Sritrakul told Reuters.

"If there is no unexpected factor, the number of arrivals should continue to improve and end the year better than our forecast," he added, referring to the potential for political unrest.

National carrier Thai Airways International also sounded optimistic on Friday. Chairman Wallop Bhukkanasut told reporters after a board meeting that its cabin factor -the percentage of seats sold- rose to more than 76 percent in August.

But political risks remain for both the tourist sector and the economy in general. Political protests are picking up again after a lull and thousands of supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are planning a massive rally against current premier Abhisit Vejjajiva in early September.


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