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US Embassy in Bangkok issues alert to US citizens living in and traveling to Bangkok

As political protests spiral in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand’s tourism industry is suffering.

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As political protests spiral in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand’s tourism industry is suffering.

Some luxury hotels in the commercial center have been under virtual siege since Saturday with thousands of anti-government protesters camped out in the heart of the capital city. Upscale malls, popular with Thais and foreign tourists, have had to close, as have office buildings and bank branches. Local merchants say the demonstrations have cost them millions of dollars.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, giving the army broad powers to restore order. The government blocked an opposition TV station and dozens of Web sites Thursday, trying to use censorship instead of violence to control the anti-government rallies.

The news blackout triggered outrage from the “Red Shirt” protesters, so named for their signature attire, who vowed to defy the state of emergency Friday with a march to 10 undisclosed locations in Bangkok.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has issued an alert to U.S. citizens living in and traveling to Bangkok, cautioning them about the uncertainty of the situation and the possibility of violence between demonstrators and security personnel (see Tourist/trade groups and individual travelers have been postponing Bangkok trips. However, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said on its Web site that much of the city is operating normally, including Bangkok’s two airports, and that foreigners have not been targeted in the demonstrations (see for updates). However, international tourist arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport have dropped by 15 percent since the protests began in the capital on March 12, reported the Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper.

The protests have been centered on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a major thoroughfare of malls, luxury hotels and government buildings; Makkawan Rangsan Bridge near Government House; and the Ratchaprasong intersection. Roads are closed in those areas.

The Red Shirts, who draw much of their strength from farmers and laborers largely left out of Thailand’s economic boom, argue that Abhisit came to power illegitimately and they want to force new elections.

Many red shirts support ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup in 2006. His overthrow has led to deep political divisions in Thai society that have hurt the country’s economy, tourism and international reputation.

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