Tourists Ignoring Troubles in Thailand

Russian tourists continued with holidays after the 2004 tsunami and sunbathed against a background of bombed-out ruins in Abkhazia. Now, as Thailand's main airport remains closed under rebel control, they continue to fly into the country.

"I saw myself that they are still flying in," said Yulia Khalilova, who returned from Thailand on Saturday. "I got the impression that they were people who bought last-minute tours and didn't want to lose their money."

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry issued a warning for tourists planning to travel to Thailand, as anti-government protesters in the country continued to occupy the office of the country's prime minister and its main airport in Bangkok.

The warning was repeated on Friday and again Monday. The Federal Tourism Agency issued a statement on Friday telling tour operators to inform customers of the warning and describing trips as "undesirable."

This doesn't seem to have inhibited the vacationers, who are simply flying in to another airport, U-Tapao.

Khalilova said she bought an Aeroflot ticket after her flight on Thai Airways was repeatedly cancelled. Some Russian tourists whose flight was due to leave Wednesday didn't leave until Sunday, she said.

"People are flying. There aren't any cancellations, except in a few exceptional cases," said Aeroflot spokeswoman Irina Danmenberg.

Transaero spokesman Sergei Bykhal said flights from four Russian cities were arriving at U-Tapao regularly and were "pretty full."

"We haven't had a single person abandon their trip," said Vladimir Morozov, manager for Thailand at Roza Vetrov agency, adding that the agency has been telling people of the Foreign Ministry warning.

"People react normally. In fact, nothing frightening is happening," Morozov said. "The situation isn't affecting tourists, and the resorts are open."

Thailand is a relatively cheap destination and does not require Russians to have visas.

Agencies are not supposed to sell tours to destinations officially described as unsafe, a spokesperson for the Association of Tour Operators of Russia told Interfax.

But a spokeswoman for the Federal Tourism Agency, Yekaterina Smirnova, said the warning was only "a recommendation" and that it would be lifted when the Foreign Ministry lifted its alert.

Channel One television showed Russians standing in long lines Monday at U-Tapao, which the government opened to civilian flights when the main airport was shut down, Interfax reported.

Hundreds of members of the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy continued to occupy Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Monday, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

They accuse Wongsawat of being a pawn for his brother-in-law, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile.

The occupation of the airport has stranded tens of thousands of tourists, Interfax reported.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Bangkok said more than 1,000 Russians were waiting to leave Thailand. Flights on Swiss International Air Lines, S7, Qatar Airways and Thai Airways are severely delayed.

Despite Russian airlines reporting full planes, concerns over safety finally appeared to be sinking in, and the spokesman said the number of Russian tourists in Thailand had "fallen drastically" and that the majority of tourists were canceling their trips.

"Everyone is afraid," said Yulia Shershavina, a manager at Inna Travel. "People aren't buying tours or even asking about them."

People who booked tours for the next few days and can't fly out would receive refunds, Shershavina said. Those who booked for New Year's, however, would only receive refunds if the standoff continues.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry's Consular Department said many people were calling to ask about travel to Thailand.

Russians tourists took almost 5 million trips abroad in the first half of 2008, with China and Turkey as the most popular destinations.