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Thailand Announces Tighter Security Measures for Tourism - 2002-10-20

Thailand has announced tighter security measures at its tourist destinations after this month's bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is one of many Southeast Asian nations concerned that the terrorist acts in the region will devastate the crucial tourism industry.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered tighter security at key tourist locations as Thailand is approaching its peak season, the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Thai police patrols have been stepped up on the popular tourist islands of Phuket and Koh Samui. Major entertainment complexes are coming under special watch and 200 army commandos are to be mobilized to oversee a popular monthly beach party that attracts up to 3,000 mostly foreign visitors on the southern island of Koh Pha Nga.

The moves come as Pacific and Western governments issued strong travel warnings to their citizens to leave or cancel holiday plans in Southeast Asia.

The British Foreign Office says the threat of a terrorist attack has increased significantly and urged people to exercise extreme caution in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and East Timor.

Australia and New Zealand say they have disturbing new information that Westerners are facing security risks in the region after the deadly October 12 bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At least 180 foreign tourists, mostly Australians, were killed.

Governments here in Southeast Asia are contending with dual concerns: how to protect against more loss of life from terrorism and how to protect their people from economic devastation through the loss of vital tourist money.

Each year some 40 million tourists flock to such places as Bali, Bangkok, Phuket and Singapore, employing millions and providing much needed foreign exchange earnings.

In Thailand alone, tourism accounts for five percent of economic output and generates some $5 billion in foreign exchange. The country has been hoping for 11 million visitors this year, a 10 percent increase over 2001.

John Koldowski, of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, says bookings are going to go down. "There is some evidence some markets are already switching and they are picking other destinations such as Thailand or maybe Singapore," he says. "Others are saying 'Heck it's not worth it; let's stay home, let's see what going to happen next.'"

A man from the Australian city of Brisbane, who gave only his first name, Cam, says that while he feels generally safe in Thailand, the threat of violence is now a constant for everyone traveling in the region. "I would think twice before I go anywhere. Because all these things happening in big crowded tourist locations basically have been targeted by God knows who for what purposes, for doing that just makes me think twice, to be honest."

While tourism experts say some people have switched their holiday plans from Indonesia to Thailand this week, Western consular officials in Bangkok told VOA they are facing a constant barrage of telephone queries from nationals, asking whether Thailand is a safe destination.

Thailand may fare better than some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, but it is not clear for how long. Khampi Suwannarat, executive vice president of the Dusit Hotel and Resort Group in Bangkok, says Westerners are not so familiar with the region that they accurately differentiate between countries. "I'm still worried about the long term because people from long haul traveling may cancel their trip altogether because they don't really know where Bali is in [relation to] Thailand. So it's still confusing. And we may be affected. People may be too scared to travel," he says.

Mr. Khampi says there are now fears in the tourism industry that Southeast Asia may be viewed as a generally unsafe destination for travelers. "If I were a traveler coming from a long haul like from Europe or America, I probably would postpone my trip to Southeast Asia for a while," he says.

The tourism industry is bracing for further problems if war erupts in the Middle East, or if further attacks were to take place in Southeast Asia.