Government opens escape routes for tourists stranded in Bangkok

The Thai government pledged Monday to speed up emergency flights from provincial airports for an estimated 240,000 foreign tourists stranded in Bangkok by the closure of the capital's two airports by political protestors, dpa reported.

"I believe we can send all the passengers home within seven to 10 days," Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kohsurat said.

Thailand's efforts to repatriate tourists stranded in the country received a boost Sunday night when the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) agreed to release 88 aircraft, 12 of which were owned by foreign airlines, parked at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which the group occupied last week.

The PAD also seized and closed down Don Mueang, the former international airport, in their bid to topple the government.

Weerasak estimated that some 240,000 tourists were still awaiting flights out of the country.

The government is using the Vietnam War era U-Tapao air base, 150 kilometres south-east of Bangkok, as an alternative to Bangkok.

Authorities were also planning to open up the Nakorn Ratchasima Air Force base, 200 kilometres north-east of Bangkok, as another emergency departure hub.

Both of those provincial airfields were built with the assistance of the US government four decades ago for US aircraft and troops in nearby Vietnam.

Thailand is spending an estimated 40 million baht (1.1 million dollars) a day to put stranded tourists up in hotels while they wait for flights out.

The total expenditure is likely to reach 2 billion baht (57 million) over the next seven to 10 days.

"When they have all left, Thailand will be very quiet and lonely," said Weerasak.

The closure of Bangkok's two airports has caused incalculable damage to the country's tourism industry and exports.

Tourism is one of the country's main foreign-exchange earners, bringing in an estimated 600 billion baht (17 billion dollars) each year.

Thailand's Board of Trade has estimated that the country is losing about 3 billion baht (86 million dollars) a day in exports due to the closure of Bangkok's airports.

"Thai exports will lose lots of business opportunities as buyers will turn to other countries," Board of Trade vice chairman Somkiat Anuraj told The Nation newspaper. "Unfortunately, this is happening during the peak export period as lots of orders are received during November and December."

The airports' siege showed no sign of resolution Monday. Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has refused to resign or dissolve parliament, and the PAD still refuses to abandon the facilities.

Hopes that the Constitution Court might solve the standoff by an expected ruling on Tuesday that would disband Somchai's People Power Party, and removing him from office, have started to fade as it has become clear the verdict might lead to more unrest.

The pro-government Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, formed to oppose the PAD, has vowed to block the Constitution Court verdict with a mass protest Tuesday.

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