Interview with Newley Purnell: On Bangkok’s Political Crisis and Travel to Thailand

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  04.20.09 | 5:04 PM ET

Photo of Bangkok on April 14, 2009, by interactimages, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Bangkok is still reeling from the violent “red shirt” protests that swept the city last week. Though protesters surrendered to the government on Tuesday, an assassination attempt against a prominent protest leader on Friday kept Thais on edge. Several countries, including Britain, Australia and China, issued warnings against travel to Thailand last week, and a state of emergency remains in effect.

I emailed Bangkok-based journalist and World Hum contributor Newley Purnell to get his take on the situation and its impact on local tourism.

World Hum: Describe the scene in your neighborhood this morning. Are things generally calm?

Newley Purnell: It’s a bright, humid morning here in central Bangkok. We’re in the middle of the hot season, so it’s absolutely sweltering. Taxi cabs, motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks are inching along on a clogged freeway artery a few hundred meters from my balcony. Construction workers are pounding nails in an adjacent apartment building. Birds are squeaking in nearby trees. It’s very calm.

What’s the mood been like on Khao San Road and elsewhere in the city among foreign travelers over the last week? Did tourists seem aware of how tenuous the situation was?

Early last week, when there were violent clashes in the streets between anti-government red-shirt protesters and army troops, the atmosphere was very tense indeed. Tourists were aware of what was happening, and they seemed mildly concerned about how the upheaval might affect their travel plans. But Bangkok is a sprawling city, so while protesters were setting buses on fire on one block, for example, not far away, things were completely normal, with vendors selling juice and snacks and isolated pockets of people spraying water on one another as part of the Songkran—Thai new year—holiday.

You covered the impact of last November’s Bangkok airport strike on tourism in Thailand. Had the country’s tourism sector had a chance to recover before this most recent wave of unrest hit?

Before last week’s unrest, the tourism industry was struggling. Now the outlook is even more troubling. Not only did the shutdown of Bangkok’s international airport draw headlines in November, but the global financial crisis has taken a toll here, as well. It’s said that Thailand’s tourism industry is highly resilient, having bounced back from the 2004 tsunami and the 2006 military coup. But there are very serious concerns here now. Tourism accounts for a massive 6.7 percent of the Thai economy, and the industry is estimated to employ 2 million people. Thai tourism officials had hoped to welcome some 14 million visitors this year—to put that in perspective, consider that Thailand’s population is roughly 64 million. But now some estimates put the total number of 2009 arrivals at under 10 million.

How worried are local business owners in Bangkok about the long-term impact on tourism at this point?

Travel agents, hoteliers, resort owners and staff—everyone is concerned. The turmoil in Bangkok happened just last week, but early indications are that some people are postponing and canceling trips to Thailand as a result.

What’s your advice to travelers currently considering a trip there?

For those who have fixed travel dates that include transiting through Bangkok, I recommend monitoring the situation closely. So far there have been no indications that the protesters will target the airport, as happened in November. But it’s impossible to rule out a disruption there. Unfortunately, the situation is so fluid that it’s still unclear precisely what will happen in six months, six weeks, or even next week. The clashes are over—for now—but Thai politics has become extremely polarized in recent years, and many analysts say that the calm that has come to Bangkok now may well be fleeting.

However, there are two things to consider that independent travelers might find hopeful. First, protesters have not—and likely will not ever—target foreigners. So unless you go wandering into a zone where army troops and demonstrators are squaring off, there’s limited risk of physical danger. And second, remember that, for now, Bangkok remains the main area of tension. If you’re concerned about traveling through the capital, it’s possible to fly directly to other Thai cities from within the region. That means that cities like Chiang Mai and Phuket are accessible even when things might be flaring up in Bangkok. That’s not to say that unrest might not come to these places, as well, but travelers should remember that there are other options for arriving and departing from Thailand.

Thanks, Newley. We’ll be watching your Twitter feed for updates.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

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