Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thailand eyes record tourism despite crash, coup

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand is eyeing a record tourist influx with foreigners seemingly undeterred by the Phuket plane disaster or political concerns since a military coup one year ago, industry officials say.

Hassles at a gleaming new airport outside the capital Bangkok have not put off visitors either, helping the tourism sector perform better than at first expected.

Sunday's Phuket crash, when a plane operated by budget carrier One-Two-Go crashed and broke up in flames on landing at the popular island resort, killed 89 of the 130 passengers and crew on board.

An airline official said 52 foreigners were among the dead, although police put the number at 57.

Despite that few foreigners have cancelled trips to Thailand, said Chattan Kunkara Na Ayudhaya, a spokesman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

"The situation so far is OK. Only 120 Singaporeans cancelled while 50 South Korean honeymoon couples just delayed their arrival dates," Chattan said.

There were no cancellations from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Australia, he said.

Tourists have also shrugged off political turmoil after the September 19, 2006 coup overthrew the government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Since the coup confidence among Thai consumers and investors has plummeted, while export growth is slowing.

But tourists were undeterred even by deadly bombs in Bangkok on New Year's Eve and a worsening insurgency in southern Muslim-majority provinces.

Thailand is now set for another record year in tourism, which generates six percent of the kingdom's economy, with at least 14.5 million arrivals, industry officials said.

"Given numerous negative factors, the tourism industry has performed better than expected. The coup, for example, hurt the sector briefly and actually caused less damage than we thought," said Chattan.

"We turned around the situation quickly and are still on track to achieve this year's target," he told AFP.

Many tourists did initially postpone trips after the coup, and Western embassies have heightened their warnings on security in Thailand.

The low season in May and June was quieter than normal, with 30 percent fewer arrivals than the same period last year and Asian tourists in particular staying away, said Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA).

"Tourists from Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam had disappeared because of shrinking confidence, mainly caused by rising violence in the south," he said.

But now resorts and hotels on Phuket are fully booked for the coming high season that starts in November, he added, speaking before Sunday's crash.

In the northern tourist magnet of Chiang Mai, where a thick haze blanketed the city for much of March, hotel operators also expect a record two million visitors this year.

"It's not the first coup in Thailand. That wasn't my concern at all for coming to Bangkok," said Catherine Law, a hotelier and first-time visitor from Hong Kong who was shopping at an upscale department store here.

"Attacks like the New Year bombings in Bangkok can happen anywhere."

An American aerospace executive who gave his name only as Paul said he was aware of the southern insurgency and the risk of new bombings in Bangkok.

"But I think the government and the military have taken everything under control," the 52-year-old said.

The new Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened in Bangkok on September 28, 2006, has helped drive growth. It expanded capacity from the overstretched Don Mueang airport which now serves domestic flights.

International carriers have opened new routes to Bangkok, and the capital's skyline is filling up with new hotels and sprawling malls that have continued to sprout even after the coup.

While complaining of long lines, inadequate restrooms, poor signage and other problems at the new airport, passengers have kept coming.

It took nearly an hour for Collin Godgett, 55, from Northampton in Britain, to get through immigration at Suvarnabhumi.

"Maybe it's getting worse. A lot of people were waiting in the queue to get through immigration," he told AFP as he waited for a flight to Heathrow.

He had just finished his third trip to Thailand in the last 12 months.

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