x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Thailand is now safe to visit: envoy

As floodwaters recede, the Thai ambassador insists country is safe, especially for travellers arriving at Bangkok's international airport.

ABU DHABI // Thailand's ambassador has insisted it is safe to visit his country, despite a UAE government warning to the contrary.

Somchai Charanasomboon's comments come after the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok's main waterway, burst its banks on Saturday, inundating several city suburbs and the domestic airport.

The country's worst floods in almost 60 years have killed 381 people since July, and wiped out a quarter of its rice crop.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned citizens against travel to Thailand. Mr Charanasomboon said the warning had been issued after a "telex" from the UAE embassy in Bangkok.

However, he said: "I insist that Bangkok is still safe, especially for people who are travelling to Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

"The airport we see in the news is the domestic airport, and all those flights have been moved to the other one."

He added that travel to most other parts of Thailand was also safe. "If they want to travel to other cities like Chiang Mai or Phuket, it's very easy to take domestic flights," he said.

Comchai Sukkhasantikul, the general manager of Thai Airways in Dubai, said many travellers had cancelled their tickets due to a perception that the flooding continued.

"We've seen 150 passenger cancellations between October 24 to the 26, which was the time when there was the worst flood. But it was also around the same time the Foreign Ministry issued their warning against travel to Thailand, because most of our passengers are Emirati," said Mr Sukkhasantikul.

Thailand is an increasingly popular destination for Emiratis, many of whom visit for tourism - including medical tourism.

According to Mr Charanasomboon, the number of Emiratis travelling to Thailand has increased by 30 per cent in the past year. In 2010, he said, more than 140,000 Emiratis visited Thailand, mostly for medical treatment. "There is no problem for people going to Thailand to get operations. It is still going on extensively."

Mr Charanasomboon said that despite the floods he was still receiving many requests from Emiratis for 90-day extensions on their 30-day visas upon arrival.

"They like Thailand very much. One reason is for medical purposes. But they also like it because Thai people are so friendly. In Thailand we live in peace."

Simon D'Mello, the managing director of Dubai Leisure Holidays, said he had not seen a large drop in sales of tickets to Thailand.

"The travel warning has affected our business, but not much," he said. "Middle-class passengers will go if they want to go, no matter what - it is more the high-class passengers who are postponing flights."

An official from an Abu Dhabi travel agency connected to Thai Airways also confirmed that numbers had not been greatly affected.

"The government has announced that it's not safe to travel to Thailand, but our flights haven't stopped," said the employee, who asked not to be named.

The ambassador said his government expected the flooding to be over in four to six weeks, and it would soon release a three-phase relief and recovery plan.

It is expected to comprise comprehensive infrastructure rehabilitation, including the removal and transportation of excess material, the construction of water dykes, the provision of temporary shelter for flood victims and the installation of water pumps.

"The water in some parts is not safe, so we have to improve our water quality to prevent pandemic diseases and to reduce the possibility of critical conditions," he said.

Much of Bangkok is under water, including popular tourist sites such as the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

"The plan is also to restore the damage of our historical sites. The German government has already offered to help us," said Mr Charanasomboon.

He also hopes the UAE government will contribute, and spoke yesterday to Ahmed Abdullah Al Musalli, the director of Asian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about financial aid.

"[Mr Al Musalli] told me that the [UAE] embassy in Bangkok has submitted a recommendation to the UAE government to send help to Thailand," he said. "The UAE is normally very generous. If they will give any assistance, we will be happy for it."

The Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, issued a statement on Saturday saying the receeding floods north of Bangkok had reduced the threat to the city.

No one at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs could be reached for comment, and a spokesman at the UAE Embassy in Bangkok declined to comment.

molson@thenational.ae