BANGKOK — The number of foreigners flocking to Bangkok for the Thai New Year is down from last year, says the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
In the first half of April, the number of international tourists coming to Thailand dropped to 937,000, a five percent decrease from the same time last year. The number of foreign visitors was especially low in Bangkok, the centre of the country’s political turmoil.
When asked what’s to blame for this year’s decline in tourists, many business owners from Khaosan Road, one of the city’s top tourist destinations, agreed on a culprit: the political protests that have taken hold of Bangkok for the past four months.
Thailand's tourism sector has been suffering since November, when the anti-government protestors first took to the streets in an attempt to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and rid the country of her family’s influence. The tourism industry was dealt another blow in January, when an uptick in violence led the government to declare a state of emergency that lasted for two months of what is normally Thailand’s peak season for tourists.
One of the violent episodes involved a deadly confrontation between police officers and anti-government demonstrators in February on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a stone's throw from Khaosan Road.
Tourism has increased since the state of emergency was lifted in March, but numbers during Songkran – a key week for the tourist industry – are still lower than normal.
“We thought we could recoup some of the losses during Songkran because it is the peak season of our business, but it didn’t turn out so well," said Piyapat Sathiansood, the manager of a restaurant on Khaosan Road.
Despite the lifting of the state of emergency last month, at least 50 countries still maintain advisories against traveling to Thailand.
Khaosan Road street vendor Dang Sanitwong Na Ayutthaya attributes this year's lack of foreign tourists to the roadblocks that anti-government protestors maintained around the city for months, especially the barricade that still spans the nearby Phan Fa Bridge.
“Suppose the foreigners want to come to Khaosan, their taxi may not get here because there are roadblocks everywhere,” Ms. Dang said. “And imagine the tour companies, they can’t just come and park their cars over here, so they avoid this area all together.”
But for restaurant manager Ms. Piyapat, the protesters are not to blame.
“I don’t fault the protesters,” she said. “There have been attacks on demonstrators in the past few months and I think it’s this kind of image that has been transmitted to the world.”
Several dozen people have died in shadowy attacks on protest camps over the past four months.
Police Lt. Narin Chantana said he thinks the proximity of protestors to Khaosan Road has not affected the safety of the tourist hotspot, only its perception abroad.
“Even though the PCAD is camping right there, I personally think it has had no direct effect at all,” said Mr. Narin, referring to the People's Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King As Head of State. “I think it affects only the image of Thailand."
Sanga Ruangwattanakul, the president of the Khaosan Road Business Association, said he would like to see the government do more aggressive PR overseas.
“When I travel around to Hong Kong, Singapore, the only thing I see on TV overseas is violence. That’s why people are not coming to Bangkok,” Mr. Sanga said. “[The government] should do something about this.”
Yet while the overall number of tourists is down, the decrease in foreigners celebrating Songkran this year was partially picked up by a surge in the number of local revelers. The number of Thais ringing in the New Year on Khaosan Road was up by 20% compared to last year, said Mr. Sanga.
Mr. Sanga said the influx of Thai celebrators helped prevent major losses among local bars and restaurants, but guesthouses and hotels were still hit hard by the lack of foreign visitors.
"Some, especially in the hospitality business, are laying people off, not hiring more people, and not hiring part-time workers," said Mr. Sanga. “A lot of money has left the business.”
With political unrest expected to pick up in Bangkok after the end of the holiday, many business owners along Khaosan Road remain wary about the future.
Street vendor Mrs. Dang said she just wants Khaosan Road to return back to normal.
“I thought back in 2010, the Redshirt crisis was already bad,” said Ms. Dang. “But this is even worse."
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