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January 9, 2009

Thai central bank sees tourist arrivals at 4-year low in 2009

Thailand may see its lowest number of tourist arrivals in four years in 2009 after the blockade of Bangkok's airports late last year that stranded thousands of holidaymakers, Reuters reported, quoting a report issued by the Bank of Thailand.

The week-long siege of Suvarnabhumi airport from Nov. 25 by anti-government protesters caused massive damage to the important tourist and trade sectors. Don Muang airport, a big domestic hub, was also closed by protesters.

The central bank said foreign arrivals probably fell 3 percent to 14 million in 2008 and could drop nearly 9 percent to 12.8 million this year.

That would be the lowest since 2005, when visitors dropped slightly from the previous year to 11.5 million after the December 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 5,300 people in Thailand.

The blockade of Suvarnabhumi, which handles more than 100,000 travellers a day, could not have come at a worse time for Thai tourism, since November is the start of the peak season.

Illustrating the immediate impact on tourism, the report said that arrivals in the first 11 months of 2008 were 3.7 percent higher than in the same period the previous year at 13.4 million.

Without the airport blockade, arrivals could have totalled 14.6 million in 2008 as a whole and 15.6 million in 2009, the report estimated.

Revenue from tourism -- which employs 1.8 million people out of a population of about 65 million -- could fall 14 percent to 484 billion baht this year ($14 billion) after a projected 2 percent drop to 564 billion baht in 2008, the report said.

In total, the airport closures could eventually cost the economy 290 billion baht, or 3 percent of 2009 GDP, with the tourist sector the hardest hit, it said.

Of those projected losses, 120 billion baht was in the service sector, 90 billion baht in the transport sector and 60 billion baht in industry and other sectors.

Thai Airways, the national carrier, said this week it wanted to delay the delivery of six A330 aircraft and had agreed with Airbus to defer payments for three months because of the downturn in its business due to the global economic slowdown and the airport closures.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has warned that the country could slide into recession and says his government plans aggressive measures to help the export-led economy, which the central bank expects to grow just 0.5-2.5 percent this year.

Exports fell nearly 18 percent in November, the first monthly drop since 2002, due to the airport blockade and falling demand in the face of the global economic crisis.

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