Thailand's Image, Tourism Suffering
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. These are nervous times in Thailand. The country's revered king is ill and hasn't been seen in days. He was a no-show for his birthday celebration and traditional yearly speech. This has come at a time of political unrest that saw protesters seize Bangkok's two main airports. Those airports have reopened, but as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, Thailand's image and its tourism has suffered.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Bangkok's Bumingrad hospital is usually packed with foreign visitors - a medical tourism mecca that draws patients from all over the world for routine procedures to major heart surgery.
(Soundbite of clanking dishes)
SULLIVAN: These days, though, the lobby seems almost deserted.
(Soundbite of Thai being spoken)
SULLIVAN: No long lines for lattes at the hospital Starbucks, no queues for quarter-pounders at the McDonalds, no backlog in the waiting rooms, either - and with good reason.
Mr. KEN MAYS (Marketing Director, Bumingrad Hospital): Half of our patients - 40 percent of our patients come from outside of Thailand. So, if they're flying in - they're unable to fly in - that's a big impact, yeah.
SULLIVAN: Ken Mays is the marketing director at Bumingrad. He says hundreds of patients have canceled their planned visits - unable or unwilling to make their trips.
Mr. MAYS: The real test will be next week and the week after, when the airport's back open and flights are coming back in again. How fast is the recovery? Does it come back? Do people say well, I'll wait a week to see, and then once it reopened did people say, OK, then schedule me on the next flight. Does that happen? Or did people say, I'm going somewhere else for my surgery? I'm not going to Thailand anymore. And it's going to take a few weeks to find out that.
SULLIVAN: The Tourism Authority of Thailand says it expects the number of foreign visitors to drop by half in the next year - from 14 million to just 7 million.
Mr. PRAMON SUTHEEWONG (Chairman, Thailand Chamber of Commerce): The season - the high season of December-January is lost this year.
SULLIVAN: That's Pramon Sutheewong, president of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. And some here think he's an optimist.
Mr. SUTHEEWONG: I think it take more than two month, three month to come back as normal - maybe half year, because I think the foreigner not confident about Thailand.
SULLIVAN: Chollipat Moleewat is general manager of the midrange City Chic Hotel, not far from Bumingrad Hospital.
Mr. CHOLLIPAT MOLEEWAT (General Manager, City Chic Hotel): Even at Suvarnabhumi airport, the bookings still have cancellation every day. Normally, our hotel - run about 80 percent every day, but now is up to 20 percent.
SULLIVAN: And he's lucky to get that. Some five-star hotels aren't even hitting 10 percent and are already beginning to furlough employees.
(Soundbite of music)
SULLIVAN: And the trickle-down effect has even hit Bangkok's massage parlors, too. Phakkairat Chaisit opened her place on busy Sukhumvit Road about a year and a half ago, quitting her job at a major tour operator and taking out a big loan from the bank. She says she normally gets about 30 customers a day but now is lucky to get three or four. She thinks business isn't ever going to get back to where it was before the airport closures.
Ms. PHAKKAIRAT CHAISIT (Massage Parlor Owner): Businessmen, they have to travel to Thailand - they have to - not for tourists, they have other destinations: (unintelligible), Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Seoul. They will change their destination there because it still cheaper, and beautiful places to visit.
SULLIVAN: She says she losing about $100 a day, and says she can probably last another week at this rate before she has to pull the plug on her business and her eight employees.
Ms. CHAISIT: Most of them, they are single moms, the only person who take care of the family. Each month, they have to send the money to the family, to their children, to parents as well.
SULLIAN: She blames the both opposition and the government for her plight: the former, for seizing the airports in the first place, the latter, for not doing anything about it. Like many Thais, she was hoping Thailand's revered king would use his birthday speech to offer guidance on a way out of the political impasse here. But the king is sick, his speech canceled, leaving many Thais even more uncertain about the future. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.
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