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Thai protests hurting Burmese tourism

Anti-government protestors pictured in Bangkok on Wednesday, 15 January 2014. (PHOTO: AP)

Anti-government protests in Bangkok have drastically reduced the number of people travelling between Burma and neighbouring Thailand, according to airline and tour service operators.

Aye Mra Tha, an official at Burma’s state-run Myanmar Airways International (MAI), said the number of passengers on flights to Bangkok has plummeted this high season. The airline’s two daily flights to the Thai capital – typically busy during winter tourism promotions – have lost around 40 percent of their passengers.

“Usually this time of year is a popular tourist season,” she said, “when people go to Bangkok for shopping and such.”

According to Aye Mra Tha, MAI’s two daily Bangkok-bound flights usually carry about 100 passengers each, but they are currently averaging only 60. She added that the decline has not necessitated any flight cancellations just yet.

Hla Myo, an agent at Columbus Travel and Tour in Rangoon, said that air ticket sales to Thailand have been slow after the travel agency posted a warning on its website about the impending “Bangkok Shutdown”.

“Business has been slow,” he said.

Aye Kyaw, executive director of Rubyland Tourism Service Ltd, says that travel disruptions are not only affecting Burmese winter shoppers; the number of tourists travelling to Burma has also diminished because most incoming flights to Rangoon are routed through Bangkok.

He said that the protests “surely have an impact” on Burma’s tourism, adding that some major airlines have had to reduce the number of flights headed to Thailand.

“Singapore Airlines has cut about nine flights per week,” he said. Aye Kyaw expects that other airlines will follow suit out of concerns that protestors will shut down the international airport, “just like they did the last time.”

Following two months of anti-government protests, tens of thousands have gathered at various rally sites in Bangkok this week, demanding the resignation of Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile but is widely believed to be pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Earlier this week a group of student protestors threatened to blockade the headquarters of Aerothai, which oversees all air traffic control communications in Thailand.

The group declared that they would shut down air traffic control operations if Prime Minister Yingluck did not resign by Wednesday, 15 January. The government responded with a potential 15-year sentence for those who deliberately obstruct air traffic operations, and at time of writing the threat has not been carried out.