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Thai holiday travelers hit hard

BANGKOK -- Supannee Busayaruangrat, a 51-year-old who works for a family-run tool-maker, was baffled when she saw the news about Japan banning chartered flights operated by Thai airlines. She and seven family members had a six-day trip to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido planned for the Songkran holidays, in mid-April. The tour was to use chartered flights operated by NokScoot, a Thailand-based budget carrier set up by Thailand's Nok Air and Singapore's Scoot.

Thai tourists, like these visiting the ramen museum in Yokohama, have been coming to Japan in ever greater numbers since the summer of 2013.

     She rang up her travel agency March 30, less than two weeks before her departure date, only to learn that the tour might be canceled. She rushed to find another way to get to Hokkaido, only to find everything sold out during the Thai New Year holidays.

     Songkran is the longest holiday period in Thailand. It is also the only time of year Supannee's family can get together to travel, apart from the Chinese New Year break. She decided to change her destination to Osaka and booked a flight with Thai Airways International, the national flag carrier, knowing scheduled flights operating along existing routes are not subject to the ban.

     Japan notified Thai authorities of the new restrictions late last month, after Thailand failed an aviation audit by a U.N. agency. 

     The Osaka trip will cost at least $150 more per person. That and new travel dates caused Supannee's 32-year-old niece to cancel. In fact, the whole family might not be able to go if the travel agency that made the Hokkaido reservations does not hurry with the refund, which will go toward the Osaka trip.

     "I had been planning the Hokkaido trip for more than a month and feel really disappointed," Supannee said, adding that she will never again book cheap tours that use chartered flights.

     Supannee is one of many Thais whose overseas Songkran plans have been affected by the failed audit. Japan has become an especially popular destination for Thais since the summer of 2013, when Japan waived visa requirements for Thai tourists.

     According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, 657,600 Thai citizens traveled to Japan in 2014, a 45% increase from 2013. April was the peak month, when 100,000 Thais visited. Industry officials were expecting another 10% to 20% boost for this year's Thai holiday season, buoyed by the budget airlines now flying between the two countries.

     Come True Travel, a Thai-based travel agency, said about 50% of the Japan tours it had sold for the Songkran season have been canceled. The tours used chartered flights operated by NokScoot, AirAsia, Asia Atlantic and Thai Airways. The cancellations will translate into millions of baht worth of losses. A million baht is about $31,000.

     NokScoot had to cancel up to 30 chartered flights to Japan, though some flights will go ahead as scheduled, using aircraft operated by Scoot. NokScoot has also had to postpone the launch of regular Bangkok-Tokyo service, which had been scheduled to begin in May.

     The bans -- South Korea and China have put in place similar restrictions -- were announced days before Thailand's military-dominated government lifted martial law. But one section of the interim charter that is replacing martial law gives unlimited powers to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to tackle national security issues. The global community and domestic media have been remonstrating against these powers.

     Aviation will be one of the first problems upon which Section 44 will be unleashed, Prayut said Friday evening during a televised speech, in an apparent bid to show the charter will be used as a tool to benefit Thailand. Prayut said a committee will be swiftly set up to revamp the Department of Civil Aviation.

     "Normally," the retired general said, "the whole process would be expected to take up to one and a half years. But under Article 44, the process can be shortened to three months."

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