Thai Tourism Hurt as Protests Dent Lunar New Year Trips: Economy

Thai anti-government protests that have shut down parts of Bangkok may cost the nation’s tourism industry as Chinese visitors cancel trips during the lunar new year holiday that starts this week.

Arrivals will fall by half to 1 million this month, Minister of Tourism and Sports Somsak Phurisisak said Jan. 23, with some hotels in the capital and nearby Pattaya and Hua Hin 30 percent full. The revenue loss could amount to 22.5 billion baht ($685 million), the Tourism Council of Thailand said, with China last week warning its citizens to avoid protest sites and reconsider non-essential travel to the country.

“I first planned for a week-long trip to Bangkok to visit my friend there for Christmas, but I had to postpone because of the unrest,” said Jia Yanfen, 38, a Beijing-based Chinese language teacher who has never been to Thailand. “I waited and waited, hoping to go for Chinese New Year,” Jia said. “I had to cancel the trip now. Of course I was a bit disappointed, but safety comes first.”

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok Jan. 22 as attacks on protesters escalated and demonstrators blockaded Bangkok’s busiest intersections. Concerns about a slump in tourism, which contributes about 10 percent to gross domestic product, sent the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s Tourism and Leisure Index down 3 percent last week, the worst performer among the bourse’s 27 industry groups, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“The biggest concern now is the prolonged protest begins to significantly affect the tourism industry, which was the only bright spot for the economy in 2013,” said Porranee Thongyen, head of research at Asia Plus Securities Pcl. “With sluggish consumption and investments, a slump in tourism revenue would further worsen the overall economy.”
Flights Canceled

Thailand’s benchmark SET Index slid 1.4 percent as of 10:13 a.m. local time, headed for its biggest drop since Jan. 15. The baht has slipped almost 6 percent in the past three months, the worst performer after the Indonesian rupiah among 11 most-traded Asian currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

Bangkok attracted almost 4.2 million visitors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2013, a 46 percent jump from the year before, according to government data, and Somsak said about 300,000 Chinese tourists traditionally visit the country during the lunar new year holiday, which begins Jan. 31. “We expect to see more flight reductions by airlines, especially from China,” he told reporters in Bangkok.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. will cancel 43 flights between Singapore and Bangkok between Jan. 14 and Feb. 27, and Thai Airways International Pcl (THAI) plans to scrap 25 flights between Hong Kong and the capital, the carriers said last week.
Advance Bookings

Tourist arrivals will decline by 7.3 percent to 6.5 million in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, the Tourism Council said in a statement Jan. 23. Bangkok arrivals have fallen 5 percent in January from a year earlier, it said. Since the protests began in October, more than 550 people have been wounded and 10 killed.

Advance bookings have been crimped by travel warnings from countries such as China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines and the U.S., whose authorities have warned citizens to avoid Bangkok’s protests hotspots. The Philippines said Jan. 23 its citizens in the capital should prepare to be evacuated if violence intensifies.

Tour guides from China are in close contact with counterparts in Thailand, Ying Chang Tian, a spokesman for Shanghai-based travel agency International Ltd., said by phone. “Our local agency in Bangkok will report to our company if the situation affects our schedule.”