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Political Turmoil in Thailand Creates Travel Troubles

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Thai palaceOver the last three weeks Thailand has been experiencing another flare-up of the political unrest which has racked the country since last September and prompted many nations, including the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, to urge travelers to avoid traveling to the country.

Clashes between the “Red Shirts” protesters and armed security forces seem to have peaked about 10 days ago, when two people were killed and at least 100 injured during riots in Bangkok.

Additional rioting forced the government to call off the planned Asian summit in the beach resort town of Pattaya on April 11.

Order was restored on April 12 when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and the five neighboring provinces of Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, Pathum Thani, Nakhon Pathom, and Ayutthaya. Despite the relative calm now, the government is said to be reevaluating the situation on an hour-by-hour basis.

Another flare-up could ensure if the Red Shirts opposition group makes good on its threats to spearhead further protests outside the emergency zone in Samut Sakhon province. The Red Shirts support ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced from office during a Yellow-Shirt-backed coup in 2006.

Yellow shirt protestThe normalizing atmosphere has led many countries to cancel their travel warnings and advise travelers to proceed to Thailand, but with caution. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggests that travelers avoid all political rallies, protests and demonstrations due to the threat of violence.

Though the U.S. State Department did not issue its own advisory during the recent troubles, Americans already in or heading to the affected areas of Thailand should be aware that the country is still politically volatile and unrest could flare up again unexpectedly, as it has twice in the last 12 months.

During a bout of civil unrest last December protesters seized Bangkok’s two main airports, preventing flights from entering and leaving the country. Thousands of foreign travelers were forced to make their own way to alternate airports, while others were simply stranded for up to nine days.

The recurring conflict has dealt a serious blow to Thailand’s tourism industry, which accounts for five percent of the country’s total GDP and brings in more than 500 billion baht (about $14 billion) per year. The Tourism Council of Thailand predicts that the country could lose up to 3.2 million visitors and as much as 190 billion baht (about $5.35 billion) just from the last three weeks of strife.

To counteract the decline, the government is trying to entice visitors by reducing fees for various travel-related items such as visas, flight landing charges and entrance to national parks. It is also planning an overseas “roadshow” to promote Thailand and assure visitors that the country is safe.

Those who are thinking about going to Thailand or who have already booked trips  should not necessarily cancel their plans, but they should monitor the danger level near their time of departure. Check the U.S. State Department Web site for travel warnings or advisories, but don’t let that be your ONLY resource, because some (including Peter) feel the DOS tends to be overly cautious.

You can check warnings from other governments such as the U.K. and Canada, and also read regional English-language newspapers online such as the Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post to find the most up-to the minute information on the political situation.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: Agence France-Presse, Wanderlust, Guardian, Stuff (NZ), Bangkok Post

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