August 30, 2008 / 10:56 AM / 11 years ago

Thai airport closures strand thousands of tourists

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of foreign tourists are stranded at Thailand’s Phuket beach resort and a nearby tourist town, tourist officials said on Saturday, more than 24 hours after anti-government protesters forced their airports to close.

Phuket and Krabi airports became targets of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) after thousands of its supporters clashed with riot police at Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s official compound in Bangkok on Friday.

Hundreds of supporters of PAD, a motley group of businessmen, academics and activists seeking to oust Samak from office, invaded runways or blocked roads at the two airports and another at Hat Yai in the south. The latter reopened early on Saturday.

“This really comes at a bad time as most European tour agents are starting to choose country packages for the year-end festive season,” said Suparuak Surangkura, director of the Association of Thai Travel Agents.

“We are concerned that media coverage of the protests may persuade tour agents to look at alternative destinations like Bali or Vietnam,” he said.

The closure of Phuket airport — the second busiest in Thailand after Bangkok — could hit the tourist industry hard as a third of the 15-16 million visitors to the country each year go to the resort, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said.

Tourism earned about $16 billion in 2007, equivalent to about 6 percent of gross domestic product.

A Phuket airport official told Reuters she expected the terminal to remain closed at least until dawn on Sunday.

Sixteen flights heading for Phuket were diverted to Bangkok and other airports on Friday and another 40 or more domestic and international flights were affected on Saturday, she said.

POPULAR PHUKET

Phuket, a favorite among Europeans and Asians and now recovered from the December 2004 Asian tsunami, generates at least $2.75 billion in revenue each year, according to Nongnit Tengmaneewan, acting director of Phuket’s tourist authority.

“We are working with the Phuket Hotels Association in helping stranded tourists, who get bigger hotel-room discounts. Additional buses are being arranged for those who cannot wait to fly out of Thailand via Bangkok,” she said.

Kusa Panyarachun, managing director of World Travel Service Ltd, one of Thailand’s biggest tourism companies, said: “I am not worried how the government deals with the protest or rounds up all the protesters, but it must not make the mistake of declaring a state of emergency and curfew.”

“That would be most disastrous for tourism and the economy as it would take a long time for them to come back,” he said, adding some of his high-end Australian tourists intending to fly direct to Phuket had been diverted to Bangkok and put up in hotels.

But 85 outgoing clients had been left stranded in Phuket and another 382 clients would be affected on Saturday.

“We have given extended late check-outs for our stranded South Korean and Australian tourists,” said reservation clerk Kamolthip Korin at Laguna Beach Resort in Phuket. “Many have no choice but to stay on until the airport resumes operation.”

“But even when the airport is reopened, it will take time for things to return to normal,” she said, adding that tourists staying for extra nights would get additional 20-30 percent room rate discounts.

Editing by Alan Raybould

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