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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thailand braces for tourist cancellations

The Kiatphontip Muay Thai martial arts camp in Bangkok should be full of tourists and Thais, skipping and sparring and striking punch bags. This week an eerie stillness prevailed as the previously prosperous business on the outskirts of the city remained closed after being flooded by more than 3ft of water.

In those areas of Thailand affected by the current floods, more than 500 people have died and hundreds of thousands more have lost their livelihoods. Rising water continues to make its way slowly into the capital. It is bubbling up from the drains, flowing through the canals and finding a way past sandbags and into buildings and homes.

Once the water has receded, the country will be left with a clean-up bill of an estimated £12?billion, but the losses will not end there. Images of boats being paddled down city streets have been broadcast around the world, deterring the tourists on whom the Thai economy depends.

Kiatphontip is owned by Pannee Songhai and Rob Cox, her English husband. It caters to many overseas visitors who travel to Thailand to study Muay Thai, the kingdom’s national sport. Mr Cox said the flooding could not have come at a worse time, with the high season about to start.

“I have lived here for 10 years and have never seen anything like it,” he added. “It’s foreigners coming to train who keep the gym alive and help to cover the high costs of providing for the Thai fighters who live and train here.”

Businesses aimed at tourists that have not been directly affected are still feeling the repercussions. Guesthouses on the popular Khaosan Road have reported a 50 per cent decrease in occupancy, despite the fact that there is no flooding in the immediate area and that nearby attractions such as the Grand Palace remain open.

The most popular holiday destinations in southern Thailand, such as Phuket and Krabi, remain untouched by flood waters, but hotels all over the country are bracing themselves for cancellations, and some supermarkets are reporting food shortages and panic buying.

Glenn Ferrer, the manager at the Kata Beach Resort & Spa in Phuket, this week reassured sun-seekers that there was no reason to stay away from the southern islands and resorts.

“Selected food prices have started to go up, but there are no shortages, as alternative supplies come from within southern Thailand and Malaysia. Southern Thailand is not affected by the floods, and Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui airports are all fully operational,” he said. “The beaches are still sunny and all the shopping and entertainment complexes are open.”

The flooding is the latest in a series of events that has undermined travellers’ confidence in Thailand. In 2008, political protests resulted in the closure of the country’s two busiest international airports; last year 91 people died in a demonstration against the government.

The previously volatile political situation appears to have stabilised in the aftermath of the recent election and tourism arrivals in Thailand were projected to come close to the 20?million mark this year. With Britain and other countries continuing to advise against all but essential travel to Bangkok, that figure is likely to drop significantly.

In and around Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi International Airport was this week operating as normal, although Don Mueang Airport, which deals exclusively with domestic flights, was shut. According to the irrigation department, the water will recede from Bangkok in the next week, but for people whose homes and businesses have been submerged, the damage has already been done.

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