|By Chadamas Chinmaneevong, Bangkok Post,
ThailandMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 18, 2010 --Forget the colourful posters of sun, sand and sea -- non-stop media coverage of bombs, gunfire and grenade blasts in the heart of Bangkok have devastated Thailand's image as the destination of choice in Southeast Asia.
At Suvarnabhumi Airport, it is clear that the country's political conflict is taking an increasing toll on tourism, with arrivals down by up to two-thirds of normal levels.
Yet for many tourists queuing up at the departure gates, the feeling they will take home is not one of fear or anger, but rather sadness for the country and disappointment for a trip cut short.
Quite a few say they would definitely return to Thailand, albeit once the conflict eases and stability returns.
Canadian Mila Bridger said she "hated to leave" the country.
A veteran of several holidays to Thailand, her family visited Bangkok, Phuket and Koh Lanta during this trip.
"We don't know too much about the Thai political conflicts," Ms Bridger said, shortly before she joined the line to go through passport control. "We just read and follow up the situation in the newspapers, and don't really know what the situation and conflict are about.
"The pictures of the clashes are terrible. We cancelled our plans to travel within Bangkok."
But Ms Bridger said the rest of her family's trip was "heavenly" and peaceful.
"I love diving in Thailand. It is heaven for us," she said. "We will come back for sure. But I think tourists coming here should avoid Bangkok, since many places are like a war zone. But you can and should go to other provinces, such as Phuket or Koh Lanta."
Michael Hunt, an Australian student standing nearby, offered similar thoughts.
"I am dumbstruck to see so many places in Bangkok labelled red zones," said the frequent visitor to Thailand. "Thais are very nice people and I don't know what happened to make them fight each other.
"I will stay only one night in Thailand and take a connecting flight tomorrow. But I think I will take holiday here again next year. Hopefully, the situation will be over by then."
French citizen Louis Ben shrugged when asked if he was frightened by the protests and clashes.
"I have travelled here many times and I read many stories about the conflict before coming on this trip. [The red-shirts] are seeking a better life," he said.
"I'm not scared to travel in Bangkok. Demonstrations like this can happen in any democratic country. Certainly it happens in France."
Mr Ben said he never thought of cancelling his one-month holiday to the country with his partner.
"Thailand is still attractive to me and, I think, for many other foreigners as well. People, services and tourist attractions in Thailand are still a strong point of the country. We can't find them in other places in the world, so we will be back again," he said.
But for tourism and hotel operators, the past several weeks has been a nightmare.
Bangkok's top hotels, including the Dusit Thani, Four Seasons, Centara Grand @ CentralWorld, Grand Hyatt Erawan, Hilton and Intercontinental, have shut their doors because of the unrest, while occupancy at other leading properties has dropped as low as single-digits.
Charoen Wanganaond, spokesman for the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, said it was "impossible" for the country to reach its foreign tourist target of 14 million arrivals this year.
"It's hard to say what will happen, as the situation is ongoing and who knows how it will end," he said.
"What is for certain is that the recovery process will be long and costly. It's worse than the [December 2008] Suvarnabhumi seizure. This is the worst crisis ever faced in the history of the Thai tourism industry."
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