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Thai siege a fresh blow for tourism

BANGKOK, Apr 12 – Thailand\’s battle-hardened tourism sector may have finally come unstuck with the violent scenes that ended a major Asian summit at a major beach resort, industry experts warned Sunday.

It weathered the SARS epidemic in 2003, the 2004 Asian tsunami and a 2006 coup, but the latest turmoil — just months after Bangkok\’s two airports were closed by separate protests — has left foreigners fearful.

Supporters of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra breached police lines on Saturday to storm into a meeting of 16 Asian leaders in Pattaya, forcing an embarrassed government to airlift them to safety.

"This kind of thing makes people feel unsafe about coming to Thailand, that\’s what we are afraid of," Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), told AFP.

Apichart said the expected figure of 14 million tourists visiting this year would no longer be met. "If we make 12 million we should be happy."

Pattaya, less than 150 kilometres (93 miles) south of Bangkok, was only confirmed as the summit venue last month after months of flip-flopping by the current administration and the previous, pro-Thaksin government.

The conference was originally due to be held in Bangkok in December but was rearranged at various points, with the northern city of Chiang Mai and the southern tourist isle of Phuket both mooted as possible destinations.

Thailand\’s tourism industry accounts for five percent of gross domestic product and employs some two million people, or up to seven percent of the country\’s total workforce.

It was hit badly last December when rival demonstrators seeking to oust Thaksin\’s allies from government shuttered Bangkok\’s airports for nine days.

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The blockade left hundreds of thousands of visitors stranded and prevented 3.4 million tourists from visiting Thailand, costing the country 290 billion baht (8.3 billion dollars), according to a central bank study.

The closure, coupled with the global economic downturn, led the new government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to approve a 143 million dollar tourism rescue fund to ease the impact of waning profits.

The government attempted to quell visitors\’ fears Saturday, but admitted that the localised state of emergency invoked for several hours while foreign leaders were ferried out of Thailand would damage the kingdom\’s image.

"Yes (it will suffer) but we will try to explain to tourists that the situation will not last long. The government did not intend for this to happen," said deputy government spokesman Supachai Jaisamut.

"We will tell tourists and Thai people they can go about their normal activities."

But reaction was swift among those countries whose nationals frequently visit Thailand.

Australia, Singapore and Russia all updated travel advisories to urge their citizens to avoid Pattaya and exercise greater caution around Thailand.

Tourism operators were most fearful about fewer numbers from the Asian market during the long-haul low season, in particular from China.

"We would expect more visitors from the Asian market (at this time of year)," said Apichart, adding that he feared Monday would bring cancellations from China.

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The market is so important to Thailand that Abhisit dispatched a government minister to Beijing earlier this year to persuade China to remove its travel warning to Thailand.

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