3 Dec 2008

Embassy staff contact stranded NZers in Thailand

6:31 pm on 3 December 2008

New Zealand embassy staff in Thailand have been checking hotels in Bangkok to confirm how many New Zealanders are still stranded by an airport blockade, which was being called off on Wednesday.

Prime Minister John Key said staff have checked 130 hotels across the city to make contact with all those waiting to get out.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said approximately 140 New Zealanders have left Thailand, but 250 are still stranded.

Mr Key said an Air Force Hercules will remain on standby in Malaysia to bring New Zealanders home if other options fail.

Thousands of travellers have been stranded since anti-government group the People's Alliance for Democracy took control of Suvarnabhumi international airport and Don Muang airport, a big domestic hub.

Protest leaders in Thailand on Wednesday said they would halt all rallies including sieges of the two airports, after a court ruling barring Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years.

Officials at the international airport say it can resume partial service by midnight local time on Thursday after the protesters end their blockade.

They say it could take "a few more days" to clean up the terminal, reboot computer systems and make other checks. It is too early to know when full service will resume. An estimated 300,000 travellers have been directly affected by the airport closures.

Government criticised

The Prime Minister ordered the airforce to send the Hercules to Malaysia on Tuesday to stand-by for possible evacuation flights. He said the plane would act as a shuttle between Bangkok's U-Tapao military air base and Malaysia.

The C-130 Hercules, which left Whenuapai airbase on Tuesday night, can carry about 65 passengers per flight.

Mr Key admitted it was unacceptable that both the airforce's Boeing 757s, which can carry up to 200 passengers, are out of action. He said he was told on Monday that the planes are undergoing maintenance in the United States and the work could not be done in New Zealand.

On Wednesday, Labour Party leader Phil Goff defended his comments over the Government's handling of the stranded New Zealanders, saying he is asking legitimate questions.

Mr Goff, the former defence minister, says the public want to know why several planeloads of Australians have arrived home, yet New Zealanders still remain in Bangkok.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully accused Mr Goff of being mischievous by commenting on airforce deployments.

But Mr Goff says when violence escalated on Tuesday and New Zealanders could have been at risk, the Government had no contingency plan.

He says the public has not been told why there was not a joint effort with Australia, or a charter flight organised.

The Australian, French and Spanish national airlines have sent planes to Thailand to help get their nationals out. Mr Key says using Australian planes remains an option.

Warning to check insurance policies

Travel agents are warning that people stranded in Thailand should check their insurance policies, rather than presuming any costs they incur will be covered.

Some insurers will not cover travellers in the event of civil unrest, but travel agents say coverage will usually be provided if the policy was purchased before the conflict began.

New Zealand's House of Travel sales director Brent Thomas says most customers will have accommodation and flight changes covered by insurance while they are stranded.

However, Mr Thomas says the amount covered will have limits, depending on the policy, and will not cover personal spending, such as shopping.

Travellers in Thailand should contact their travel agent and find out which expenses will be covered, he said.