One of Hong Kong’s biggest travel agencies and tour operators have changed tourists’ itineraries in response to the worsening political protests spreading across the streets of Bangkok.
Wing On Travel informed the Travel Industry Council of its intention to avoid shuttered shopping malls in downtown Bangkok, after thousands of Thai protesters swarmed multiple government buildings in violent clashes on Sunday.
Joseph Tung Yao-chung, the executive director of the Travel Industry Council, said: “Wing On have said there has been a change of itinerary because they understand few shopping malls have been closed.”
“The agents decided that since [shopping malls] have been closed, and receiving agents have told Hong Kong they will change their itinerary,” Tung added.
Some tour groups from Hong Kong will now avoid Siam Square, a big shopping and entertainment district, in Bangkok.
“If itineraries include shopping malls in Siam Square, they definitely have to change. There is nothing they can do.”
The anecdotal evidence has fuelled fears that prolonged protests and heightening tensions will have a long-term impact on Thailand's tourism industry, which contributes 7.3 per cent to the country's economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
The demonstrations by some 30,000 anti-government protesters have paralysed parts of Bangkok and followed a night of gun and knife battles during which two people were killed and at least 54 wounded.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was forced on Sunday to evacuate to an undisclosed location from a building where she had planned to give media interviews, while hundreds of protesters seized control of state broadcaster Thai PBS.
Tung stressed tourist safety was the number one priority. “We have already told agents in Hong Kong and the receiving agents in Thailand to make sure the priority is the safety of tourists. Basically, right now, we have not received problems arising from the tour groups.”
More than 1,000 Hongkongers, or 30 to 40 group tours, in Bangkok have been trying to steer clear of protest hotspots. “So far, all of the tour groups are safe,” Tung, said.
“They will never visit the places [currently] affected by demonstrations…there is chaos over there but tour itineraries does not include the directly affected areas.”
Last year, Hongkongers made more than 604,000 trips to Thailand.
Since the 2011 Thai floods, Thailand has remained on the Security Bureau’s outbound travel alert, a list of destinations it deems risky. Thailand has an amber warning – the lowest of three threat assessments.
The Security Bureau has advised caution for travelling to Bangkok and Phuket.
“Residents intending to visit the country or who are already there should monitor the situation, exercise caution, attend to personal safety and avoid protests and large gatherings of people,” the Security Bureau website recommended.
Last Wednesday, a small travel company specialising in tours to Japan and South Korea became the first operator to cancel trips to Thailand due to ongoing unrest.
Package Tour Hong Kong (PTHKG) suspended all holidays to Thailand until December 20. The cancellations have affected eight future tours, comprising around 160 people.
Despite it being “safe to travel” to the capital, PTHKG’s Yuen Chun-ning said a handful of concerned customers contacted the firm wanting to cancel their holiday.
The cancellations buck the trend for Hong Kong's wider travel industry, which is operating without any further trouble.
Bangkok’s international airport has remained unaffected since street skirmishes started more than a month ago.
Cathay Pacific, which operate more than two dozen flights in and out of Bangkok daily, said it was watching how the situation will unfold.
Cissy Ho, a spokeswoman for Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, said: “Operations remain normal. We are closely monitoring the situation.”
Thousands of travellers were stranded in November 2008 after hundreds of activists seized control of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport and Don Muang Airport, shutting down operations for more than a week.
Several episodes of political unrest have occurred in Thailand since the prime minister’s brother Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Additional reporting from AFP and Reuters