Thailand has been a popular destination since its spectacular beaches were discovered four decades ago by backpacking travelers and U.S. troops on leave from Vietnam. But visits and tourism dollars have dwindled in recent months on the heels of the global economic crisis and December protests that blocked access to Bangkok's airports.
A current round of protests -- marked by the cancellation of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in the southern coastal city of Pattaya this past weekend -- is bound to further drive tourism business away from the country.
"If people are deciding between a beach getaway in Fiji or Thailand, which do you think they'll choose now?" said Pete Cooper, an Australian business consultant based in Bangkok.
The battle between the "yellow shirts," supporters of the current government, and "red shirts" -- protesters now on the streets in support of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- has tourists glued to television sets, while curfews have been set in Bangkok, the nation's capital.
Bruce Bugajski of Tucson, Arizona, arrived for a four-day trip to Thailand on Sunday night and was driven to his hotel by a cabdriver with a red ribbon on his dashboard, signifying his support for the protesters. "He had a picture of the old prime minister," Bugajski said.
Monday morning, the scene outside his hotel was calm and normal -- a contrast to the images of clashes blaring from the television screen.
"Kids were outside squirting tourists with their squirt guns, and some of the tourists were getting into it," said Bugajski, referring to a water dousing ritual that is part of Songkran, a three-day holiday that began Monday in Thailand. "It's quite a different picture."
In other parts of the city, the scene wasn't squirt guns but water cannons as police fought pockets of protesters and had dozens of tourists running for cover.
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