Thai tourism recovers from political crisis


BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s tourism industry has made a “remarkable” recovery from the 2010 political crisis that turned the center of Bangkok into a battleground and scared off thousands of tourists, officials said Thursday.

The April and May anti-government protests crippled the capital’s ritziest shopping district and led to gloomy forecasts for Thailand’s vital tourism sector. But authorities now say the rebound was so strong that the number of overall visitors in 2010 exceeded pre-crisis forecasts.

With end-of-year arrivals still being tallied, the Tourism Authority of Thailand projects that annual tourist arrivals for 2010 will be about 15.8 million, more than the 15 million originally forecast and an increase from the 14 million visitors who flocked to Thailand the year before.

TAT Governor Suraphon Svetasreni calls it “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of Thai tourism” — which has suffered through Thailand’s political crisis since 2006.

In December 2008, a group of anti-government protesters shut Bangkok’s two airports. The closure stranded some 300,000 tourists and battered Thailand’s image as the tourist-friendly “Land of Smiles.”

But the protests of April and May 2010 were violent. Deadly street battles between soldiers and anti-government protesters calling for new elections turned parts of Bangkok into urban war zones. At one point, soldiers declared a section of the capital a “live fire zone” and protesters sealed off the city’s prime shopping district with tires and bamboo stakes, forcing top luxury hotels in the area to close for weeks.

At the height of the violence in May, only 464,124 arrivals were recorded at Suvarnabhumi Airport, compared to 1.1 million during the more peaceful month of January 2010, the TAT said in a statement. It said the rebound was almost immediate and many visitors simply avoided Bangkok but flew directly to international airports on the islands of Phuket and Samui.

December was a particularly robust month with 1.2 million arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, up 5.8 percent from the previous year and up almost 20 percent from the same period in 2008 when the airports were closed for a week, TAT said in a statement.

“The excellent result in the final month of 2010 has allowed the Thai tourism industry to recover from political unrest and achieve beyond its initial set targets,” Suraphon said in the statement.