100,000 stranded in Thailand after airports shut down following protesters' standoff

Sunday, November 30, 2008
DAVID LONGSTREATH ~ Associated Press
Stranded Western tourists wait for transportation Wednesday at Thailand's Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok following a takeover of the facility by the People's Alliance for Democracy. Tourism officials and economists project the tourism industry's losses for the remainder of the year will amount to billions of dollars.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The vacation is over for tens of thousands of tourists in Thailand. But they can't go home.

The Hotel California-like drama began Tuesday when anti-government protesters shut the country's primary international airport. The following day they moved in on the capital's domestic airport, grounding all commercial flights in and out of the city.

About 100,000 people have been stranded by the closures, dealing a blow to the country's reputation as a safe and reliable vacation destination. Officials project the tourism industry's losses from now until the end of the year will balloon to about 150 billion baht ($4.2 billion), equal to 1.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Hundreds gathered at Thai Airways' cramped ticket office in Bangkok on Saturday seeking a way out of the country.

Slumped in chairs or out smoking on the street outside the office, travelers swapped tales of being stuck in the airport for 23 hours or ending up in a cockroach-infested hotel. Most expressed frustration about the uncertainty of it all -- the baseless rumors, the conflicting information and the uncertainties that come with navigating a strange place.

"As time goes on, it becomes more and more stressful," said Julie Lewis, a 46-year-old manicurist from Devon, England who came to Thailand for a wedding. "This has really put a complete damper on the trip. Our last memory will be the fact that this happened."

Protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy and police reinforced their presence at Suvarnabhumi airport Saturday, but there was no word on when airports would reopen. The airport authority said Suvarnabhumi would be closed until at least Monday evening.

The longer the standoff goes on, the more creative and desperate travelers are getting.

Some have taken buses hundreds of miles to airports on the southern island of Phuket or in the northern city of Chiang Mai or overland all the way to neighboring Cambodia and Malaysia.

Others headed down to a the U-tapao military base that has been opened for commercial traffic. It is located about 120 miles southeast of Bangkok.

Thai Airways has begun to arrange flights from U-tapao and some airlines including Malaysia, China Eastern, Emirates, SAS and Cathay Pacific have sent planes to pick up their passengers there.

But the tiny airport was overwhelmed by the influx. U-tapao airport's parking lot has room for just 100 vehicles and its terminal can accommodate only 400 people at once, according to its website.

Few have been immune to the disruptions. Tour groups, backpackers, business executives and even celebrities have found themselves unable to escape Thailand.

The pregnant wife of England Rugby League Capt. Jamie Peacock is stuck with the couple's 4-year-old son. The athlete made an emotional appeal Saturday for the safe return of his wife Faye, who is 31-weeks' pregnant.

"The country is on the brink of a lot of trouble," Peacock told reporters back home. "It's as if they have forgotten about these people."

For the rich and famous, there are charter flights.

Denmark's Prince Frederik and his wife, Princess Mary, flew out from the military airport on a small corporate jet on Friday, according to Danish news agency Ritzau, citing royal spokeswoman Lene Balleby.

Joe Wilson, general manage for ASA Group which operates charter flights around Asia, said they were flying four or five flights a day out of Thailand since the crisis began.

"For this sort of business, it's very busy," Wilson said.

But for the majority of travelers, waiting was their only option. Leaving Bangkok for other airports or other countries is fraught with additional cost and unforeseen travel glitches. Many embassies have advised against it.

Rather than enjoying an extended vacation, some travelers say they're sticking close to their hotels because of the threat of political violence outside.

"I don't want to get stuck at a military base in the backwaters of Thailand with no facilities," said David Walker, a 40-year-old banker from London. "We're just sitting tight."

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