BANGKOK (AP) — Hordes of revelers toted colorful water guns Thursday as Thailand kicked off its exuberant three-day Songkran festival at full blast for the first time since 2019, hoping for a significant boost in tourism after the industry was devastated by coronavirus travel restrictions.
The New Year celebration’s signature water fighting — a major draw for tourists — had been banned or discouraged since 2020 to curb the spread of the virus, and its full-scale return was widely promoted. In Bangkok alone, there are 40 designated spots this year for public water splashing, including the touristy Khao San Road where vendors hawked food, clothes and water-fighting gear in the scorching heat.
The festival, which is also celebrated in neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, falls at the hottest time of the year when temperatures can creep above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
While many tourists and locals congregate in the capital, millions of workers head home to rural provinces to see family and celebrate by cleansing images of the Buddha for luck, throwing water on each other, and washing the hands and feet of elders to pay respect and ask for a blessing.
Police geared up for the “Seven Dangerous Days” — taking into account the travel days on either end of Songkran — during which traffic-related casualties spike in a country where road traffic death rates ranked No. 9 worldwide in the WHO’s 2018 road safety report. Many accidents involve drunk driving, and motorcyclists account for a large number of the deaths.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand projects this year’s Songkran festival will help generate more than 18 billion baht ($530 million) in revenue and bring in more than 300,000 international travelers for the holiday week — a 525% increase over the same period in 2022, but just 58% of 2019’s number from before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Although the country gradually eased up travel restrictions before fully reopening in October, local entrepreneurs remain concerned about the pace of recovery.
Thailand received about 40 million international visitors in 2019. That number decreased sharply to 6.7 million in 2020 and fewer than 500,000 in 2021, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.