Travellers to Thailand take the reckless path

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am

During the Easter holiday, many Hongkongers insisted on going to Bangkok even though the government's travel alert had been set on red since last month. Tourism sector lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun said more than 7,000 local residents were in Thailand at the time.

Although Tse opposed the rash behaviour of these travellers, he advised the government to monitor the situation closely and respond swiftly. He also reminded us that the government had to charter flights in 2008 to extricate Hongkongers stranded in Thailand.

The political situation there suddenly worsened late that year, when anti-Thaksin Shinawatra 'yellow shirt' protesters seized Bangkok's international airport, stranding many Hong Kong tourists.

The Hong Kong government was heavily criticised for its slow initial response; public pressure forced it to charter the flights. But because it took time to organise the service, many Hongkongers had already returned by the time the flights were ready.

Many who were evacuated still have not paid the fees for the charter flights. Surprisingly, the government doesn't seem too eager to be refunded: maybe it has succumbed to populist politics and given in to public pressure.

Despite the escalation in violence in Bangkok in the past week, many Hong Kong residents ignored government warnings and continued with their travel plans, disregarding personal safety. This kind of attitude is utterly irresponsible and should be condemned. The government should make it clear to them the risks involved and that they will have to shoulder all responsibilities in case of an emergency.

Nevertheless, if the situation worsens, the government still has an obligation to help them leave Thailand safely.

Some ruthless travel agents were still organising tours to Thailand even after the red alert had been raised. They were obviously putting profits above the safety of their customers.

Travel agencies have a responsibility to guarantee the safety of their customers in all circumstances; they must evaluate the risk level and decide whether it is acceptable to conduct tour services.

What baffles me is that when the red travel alert was first raised, travel agencies cancelled all tours to Bangkok. Then they reinstated all their tours even though the red alert was still in place. Now, though, no local tours are going to Thailand.

Thailand is locked in a political crisis which took a deadly turn on Saturday when government efforts to disperse protesters turned violent, leaving 21 people dead and more than 800 injured. Unshaken, anti-government demonstrators have continued their protests on the streets of Bangkok and attempts to control them so far have been largely unsuccessful.

As the political situation deteriorated further on Saturday, the Hong Kong government raised the alert level to black to deter travelling to the country. Even so, some Hongkongers still refused to change their individual travel plans.

The government should make it clear that those who disregard the travel alert will be held responsible for their actions, including paying the full cost of an emergency evacuation.

In order to deter this kind of reckless behaviour in future, the government should implement legislation to make its travel warnings more effective and ban tour agents from organising trips to any country once a red alert is in place.

I am not suggesting that the government should stand by and do nothing when local residents are in trouble. But such travellers have only themselves to blame and should be held accountable for their own actions.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.