Anti-government protests that have taken over Bangkok’s chief commercial district have already cost the country an estimated 233 million dollars in forfeited tourism revenues, media reports said Saturday.

Followers of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), also called the red shirts for their trademark protest attire, have been staging rallies in Bangkok since March 12 calling on the prime minister to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.

On April 3 the red shirts occupied Ratchaprasong Road in the heart of the capital’s commercial district, forcing scores of posh shopping centres and five—star hotels to shut over security concerns.

The protests, which have claimed 27 lives and left more than 900 people injured in clashes between troops and red shirts this month, are starting to have their toll on the country’s tourism sector, still Thailand’s leading foreign exchange earner, the Bangkok Post reported, citing government figures.

In March, 1.34 million foreign visitors arrived at international airports in Bangkok, Phuket, Hat Yai and Chiang Mai, down 4.6 per cent compared with March 2008, according to data compiled by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

In April, arrivals slumped 21 per cent compared with 2008 figures. The TAT compared 2010 arrivals to 2008 figures, the most recent “normal” year for tourism, prior to last year’s downturn as a result of the global financial crisis.

Revenues for tourism expenditure fell by 7.5 billion baht (233 million dollars) during March and April, compared with 2008 expenditures, TAT estimated. TAT governor Surapol Svetasreni said the downturn will force the agency to lower its target for 15.5 million tourists this year, compared with 14.4 million in 2009 and 14.6 million in 2008. A new estimate will be announced after the end of the protest, which is nowhere in sight.

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