Airport drama has no happy ending for Thai tourism
By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK (Reuters) - From empty sun loungers at luxury hotels to vacant bar stools in dingy fleshpots, tourism in Thailand is going through its worst slump in decades, a result of the global economic slowdown and its own political turmoil.
"Right now, business is so slow. Some nights, only one customer," said Jodie, a 24-year-old transvestite go-go dancer teetering round the capital's Nana red light district in spike-heeled thigh-high boots.
Her gloom is echoed by everybody in an industry that accounts for six percent of the economy in the self-styled "Land of Smiles," and which directly employs 1.8 million people -- around the same proportion of the eligible labor force in Thailand.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) boss Phornsiri Manoharn estimates the 8-day closure of Bangkok's $4 billion Suvarnabhumi airport by anti-government protesters a month ago will have caused one million foreign visitors to cancel or go elsewhere.
"This is the hardest hit we've ever encountered in the 48 years we've been promoting tourism to Thailand," she told Reuters, saying the airport shutdown put the December 2004 tsunami, bird flu and SARS in the shade.
With arrivals numbers for the key holiday month of December likely to be 500,000 -- a third of forecasts -- the TAT's ambitions of attracting 15.5 million tourists in the whole of 2008 and 16 million in 2009 are lying in tatters.
Far from enjoying the 70 percent occupancy they normally see in December, Bangkok's top hotels are 25 percent full, forcing management to close floors, lay off contractors and ask staff to take unpaid leave.
At the height of the airport blockade, one luxury hotel was rumored to have had just one room occupied. Continued...