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Unrest imperils Thailand's economy

Anti-government protesters march down a major street in Bangkok January 30, 2014. The general elections will take place on February 2 as the anti-government protesters vow to cause chaos by blocking polling stations. Bangkok Shutdown has been in effect for over two weeks as the anti-government protesters continue to block major intersections. The Thai government imposed a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces in an attempt to cope with the on-going political turmoil however this decree has had no effect on the mass protests.

Police presence ramped up Friday before Sunday’s disputed elections in Thailand. The government wants the public to go to the polls, despite huge anti-government protests that have been going on since November.

The unrest is rippling through Thailand's economy, especially tourism -- a big moneymaker for the country. Marketplace's Mark Garrison – currently on vacation in Thailand -- spoke with Lizzie O'Leary about the economic impact the protests are having. Click the audio player above to hear the interview.

My wife and I booked our trip before this all started and we decided to go ahead with it,” Garrison says. But the problem for Thailand is that many people are doing the opposite. There have been waves of cancelations and you can see it walking around Bangkok. There are thinner crowds at the major tourist attractions, empty seats at restaurants and vacancies at the hotels.

To put this in perspective, tourism in America is just over two percent of GDP. In Thailand it's more than seven percent -- far more important. And it has been one of the few bright spots in Thailand's economy recently. Both sides of this political debate know that, and that economic reality is shaping the protests in some interesting ways.

“What you don't see in most of the Western news coverage is that the anti-government groups demonstrating in Bangkok are staging rallies in places that are totally off the tourist map, far out of the way of foreign visitors,” Garrison says. “Right now at the most famous temples or the weekend market, it looks pretty normal and that's what both sides want. There's little common ground between them, but they agree that the tourism industry is vital and they don't want to damage it.

The unrest comes at a difficult time for emerging markets, which have suffered significant losses in financial markets this week as investors retreat.

Global investors are already nervous in general, so the unrest in Thailand is giving them another reason to put their money elsewhere”  Garrison says. Japanese automakers manufacture cars here and some execs have said they're rethinking plans for future investment. Investors who are thinking about putting money into Southeast Asia look at Thailand and see a place where this kind of unrest bubbles up every few years. Many of them are going to move that money.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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