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Thailand's tourism fire sale

Seize the post-turmoil deals now or regret it.

A girl walks on the beach on the Koh Phi Phi islands in Thailand, which is now offering rare bargains to travelers undeterred by the recent political unrest. (Nicolas Lannuzel/Creative Commons [by-sa])

BANGKOK — Enterprising travelers take note: Paradise just got cheaper.

In the wake of Bangkok’s recent street protests, ending after the December takeover of the capital’s chief international airport, tourists have gone timid on Thailand. The industry is now desperate to revive the current high season — a near-rainless, heavenly stretch between November and March.

Travelers willing to give Thailand a second chance are enjoying a rare wave of bargains: $35-per-night deluxe hotels and $30 flights to the beach among them.

“Before we left, people said, ‘Ah, come on, you can’t go there!,’” said Sam Walker, an Australian tourist cruising Bangkok’s lavish CentralWorld Mall. “But I figured it was actually the best time to go.”

Sam is right.

A pall of quiet has settled over many of Thailand’s coastal playgrounds. Bangkok’s tourist sites are still somewhat calmer. And travelers more savvy than scared are enjoying low-season perks — cheap prices and thin crowds — during blissful high-season weather.

Through much of 2008, a movement to oust a ruling party tied to deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra drew thousands to Bangkok’s streets. It climaxed in late November when protesters stormed Suvarnabhumi International Airport — essentially the nation’s front door — and images of ragtag bruisers patrolling the terminals were televised worldwide. Nearly a quarter million tourists were stranded in Thailand.

The takeover dealt a body blow to tourism here, which will likely see a 2.8-million drop in arrivals according to Bank of Thailand estimates. That’s a crushing 9 percent decrease to a kingdom that relies on tourism to shoulder roughly 6 percent of its gross domestic product.

“When you look at reduction in revenue, it’s the worst crisis in living memory,” said Andrew Wood, president of tourism cooperative Skal International Bangkok and manager of the Chao Phya Park hotel complex.

Even during the protests’ peak, Bangkok’s street violence was sporadic, confined to rally sites and generally meted out late at night. Foreigners who waded into the crowds were considered amusing novelties and offered rice dishes or headbands marked with revolutionary slogans in Thai. For visitors, the takeover amounted to massive inconvenience, but never physical harm.

“We figured they were just fighting amongst themselves,” said Kassie Cannons, 31, an Australian traveler back in Bangkok after three weeks of island hopping. “Still, my mom has been calling and calling.”

Authorities have bolstered airport security and newly appointed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in his acceptance speech, promised the world in English that the airport would never be seized again. The takeover damaged Thailand’s economy by $8.3 billion, according to a Bank of Thailand study.

“We have many repeat visitors, guests who understand Thailand and read the news carefully,” Wood said. “Political demonstrations affect so little of Thailand. These people understand it’s not going to spoil their holiday.”

Tourists are slowly filtering back into Thailand, Wood said, and the surreal quiet immediately following the airport occupation has lifted. “There were many, not a few, hotels that saw all their guests leaving. It was like a bucket of water with a hole in it, draining and draining until almost nothing.”

The post-crisis deals won’t last forever. The tourism sector is already regaining strength, Wood said, with many hotels that suffered single-digit occupancy rates now seeing about 40 percent of their rooms full. Phuket, a resort-laden island with its own airport, has proved particularly resilient, he said.

“It’s always difficult to gauge,” he said, “But we’re starting to see, instead of cancellations, new bookings coming back. I don’t think we’ll have full recovery until July or August.”

HOW TO SEIZE THAILAND’S POST-TURMOIL BARGAINS:

Don’t expect hotel prices or tour packages to be universally lower than normal. Some sectors of the tourism economy are faring better than others. Finding deals still requires some light digging.

Several websites are making a sport out of finding the cheapest crisis-related offers. Bangkok Magazine’s “Downturn Deals” blog does a fine job of wading through the onslaught of tour packages to find the best ones. They’re also adept at spotting the tourism industry’s sleight-of-hand tricks. For example: Hotels promising 2,000-baht rooms that total 4,000 baht once you check in as a couple.

Though still in its infancy, Thai Dealz is a hub of cheap offers posted by English-speaking Bangkok residents. It’s managed by Bangkok Dan, a veteran expat who runs “Absolutely Bangkok,” an offbeat collection of nightlife recommendations and cultural musings.

Check for bargains with Thailand-based airlines, which are particularly desperate for revenue following the takeover of both Bangkok airports. The largest is Thai Airways, which flies globally, followed by Bangkok Air. Domestic carriers include 1-2-Go Airlines and Nok Air. Most of the airlines’ cut-rate promotions center on travel within Thailand, including quick flights from Bangkok to coastal Phuket or the lush northern capitol, Chiang Mai.

All are unlikely to best Malaysia-based Air Asia, which gave away 100,000 free tickets in the Suvarnabhumi airport seizure’s immediate aftermath – and is still handing out cut-rate fares.

Many bargains are coordinated through the state-run Tourism Authority of Thailand. Its offers are particularly strong on hotel bookings. The site also lists dozens of hotel phone numbers, paving the way for tourists willing to call around and inquire directly about special deals. All major hotels should have English speakers on staff.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/090112/thailands-tourism-fire-sale