BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s worst floods in 50 years have hit tourism at the start of the high season, but the country has recovered quickly in the recent past from all sorts of scourges and some tour operators are hopeful a recovery might start next month.
Floodwater in some areas of the capital, Bangkok, and other provinces has started to recede, and the inner city and upmarket shopping districts have remained dry, but some in the tourist sector are still concerned.
“Trips from Japan have all been canceled since last month and there are no new bookings now. They’re a bit afraid of the situation but I think they will come back next month,” said Euamthip Panjai of All the Best Travel.
“But tourists from other countries are still coming and many of them go to Pattaya and Phuket,” she said, referring to two seaside destinations south of Bangkok that are flood-free.
Central Plaza Hotel, a big locally owned group, said it was seeing some impact from the floods, but it was a mixed picture, with poor business in some areas offset by better business elsewhere.
“Occupancy rates at our hotels in Bangkok have dropped to about 60 percent from 70 percent normally. But those in Pattaya and Hua Hin are higher than usual at 80-90 percent ... Some people may have escaped from the floods,” said CPN Senior Vice President Ronnachit Mahattanapreut.
He expected the impact to be over after this quarter.
Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), had a similar view.
“I expect tourism to recover around December because water has started to recede. When it’s over and there is nothing to worry about, tourists will come back,” he said.
Tourism accounts for 6 percent of GDP and employs at least 15 percent of the workforce in Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
The flooding started in late July in the north and the water has killed 594 people as it moved slowly south, inundating farmland and overwhelming huge industrial estates in the center in October before swamping outlying districts of Bangkok.
But the “Land of Smiles” has bounced back before -- from the Asian tsunami in 2004 and the SARS epidemic in 2003, as well as military coups and a still-simmering political crisis.
It recovered quickly in 2010 after political unrest that closed parts of central Bangkok for weeks before a military crackdown.
Even so, the flooding is expected to cut the number of overseas tourists to 18.5 million this year from a target of 19.5 million, giving revenue of 700 billion baht ($22.7 billion), said Piyaman Tejapaibul, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand.
“The number of foreign tourists, from China, Japan and Russia in particular, has slumped since Don Muang airport was under water. Some people don’t know Bangkok has two airports,” she said, adding the sector could lose 50 billion baht from the non-arrivals.
Don Muang airport, used mainly by budget airlines for domestic flights, has been closed since October 25, but some operators have moved to Bangkok’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi, which is operating as normal.
Passenger numbers through Suvarnabhumi rose 6.4 percent in October from September, when they dropped about 10 percent, according to Airports of Thailand. But they may have slipped after flooding spread in Bangkok this month.
National carrier Thai Airways said passenger numbers fell to 65.8 percent of seats sold in October, compared with an average 71.5 percent in January-October.
Luxury hotels along the Chao Phraya river have operated as normal, with the help of sandbags when the river has burst its banks at times of high tide.
However, Erawan Group, which runs the Grand Hyatt in Bangkok, expects a net loss in the fourth quarter due to a drop in tourists.
In Bangkok’s Khao San Road budget hotel area, occupancy rates fell by 20-25 percent a few weeks back but are now getting back to normal, according to one local operator.
At the height of the political violence last April and May, some tour operators had expected no more than 12-13 million foreign tourists during the year but the country managed to attract 15.9 million.
“This year the flooding will have less impact than the political conflict because when water recedes, it’s over, but the political impact was prolonged,” ATTA’s Sisdivachr said.
Domestic tourism, largely supported by high-spending Bangkok residents, may fare worse, however.
“Thai tourist numbers have gone down 90 percent,” said Maiyarat Pheerayakoses, president of the Association of Domestic Travel.
“People don’t feel like traveling, as many need to spend money on repairing their homes. I think business will be slow into the first quarter.”
Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat, Kitiphong Thaichareon and Saranya Suksomkij; Editing by Alan Raybould