Chinese tourist numbers fall as Phuket boat capsize deaths highlight Thailand’s terrible safety record

Chinese tourists make up a quarter of Thailand’s visitors, but after the handling of the recent boat accident in which 47 Chinese tourists died, and with the kingdom’s lax attitude to safety, authorities need to act quickly and decisively to retain Thailand’s tourism revenue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 8:39am

The boat accident that claimed the lives of 47 Chinese nationals off the Thai resort island of Phuket last month has shone a spotlight on the kingdom’s poor safety record and spread unease among tourism authorities and the government.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports said last week it had revised down its forecast for the number of Chinese arrivals for July to December by nearly 670,000, to 5.1 million, but insisted that Thailand would still achieve its target of 11 million Chinese tourists in 2018.

The Phoenix was carrying 105 people – mostly Chinese – when it capsized in rough weather while returning from a popular snorkelling site on July 5. It was among three vessels that ventured out in spite of a bad weather warning.

Chinese tourists accounted for almost a quarter of Thailand’s 35 million visitors in 2017, according to the ministry. The country expects to welcome 40 million tourists in 2018, with 20 million already reported in the first half of the year.

There are signs, however, that concerns among Chinese tourists about Thailand’s safety record are beginning to be felt.

The Bangkok Post, citing industry sources, reported that 7,300 hotel rooms in Phuket had already been cancelled for July and August as of late last month.

Kongkiat Khuphongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter, which includes Phuket, told local media: “The booking rate has fallen sharply by 80 per cent to 90 per cent at Patong beach, and by 50 per cent across the province [Phuket] after the [boat disaster].”

It did not help that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon blamed the boat tragedy on Chinese tour operators acting through Thai nominees, who he said were responsible for harming their fellow Chinese. Prawit later retracted his statement under pressure.

Overall the Thai government’s response to the tragedy was lambasted in the local media. The English-language Phuket News was scathing in an editorial entitled “The Deadly Face of Shame”, in which it asked “Just how bad can Thailand handle a disaster situation?”

Among the newspaper’s criticisms were claims Thai officials were “ … unable to even keep count of how many people were supposed to be missing in the Phoenix tour boat tragedy – the worst single-vessel maritime disaster in Thailand’s modern history – never mind actually attempt to find them”.

Two Chinese tourists killed after speedboats collided in Thailand

Other criticisms included, “repeated explanations of how to claim your loved one’s body” and the “despicable handing out of ‘commiseration gift baskets’ to those overwhelmed with grief at the hospitals”.

Stung by the heavy criticism, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha called for an urgent safety review. Minister of Tourism and Sports Weerasak Kowsurat, meanwhile, said there must be “no compromising on safety” and “nobody wants them [accidents] to happen … we must have safety and management procedures in place, and leave no room for compromise. If we become known as a country that does not compromise on safety, it will become another plus point for us to be recognised for not being lax in our standards”.

As families mourn Thai tour boat disaster, calls for justice mount

The government quickly organised a two-day media event in Phuket on July 17 and 18.

Items discussed included: setting up checkpoints at piers where officials could perform safety checks before tour boats depart, checking all passengers and crew always wear life jackets and boat pilots have a licence, installing 38 extra CCTV cameras Chalong Pier, the introduction of a voluntary tourist payment for a 100-baht (US$3) wristband tracking system with a QR code storing personal details for emergencies, which includes insurance coverage in case of death or medical expenses.

Mandatory travel insurance for all tourists has also been mooted in the local press, and establishment of a new, independent agency to oversee tourist safety.

More recently, it was announced that five airports across the country have opened special lanes with Mandarin-speaking immigration officials in an attempt to make the process more efficient – and presumably win back the hearts and minds of Chinese tourists.

As admirable as the suggestions may be, many are already standard safety measures in most industrialised nations, and they highlight just how dangerous Thailand can be.

On August 2, 30 passengers had to be rescued after a boat to Koh Samet, another island popular with tourists, sprang a leak after an equipment malfunction. Fortunately there were no fatalities.

A year ago, also on Phuket, Australian businessman John Hussey died after a 30-metre drop while parasailing when he accidentally released the safety harness at Kata beach.

Earlier last year at the same location, a young Australian women, Emily Jayne Collie, died when her jet ski collided with another.

Figures from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports show the number of foreign tourist related accidents in Thailand in 2017 increased by 25.12 per cent year on year, to 936, including 265 deaths. Without providing a specific number, the ministry said most of the deaths were Chinese nationals.

Thai tourism authorities did not reply to an email from the Post seeking clarification on a number of points.

The number of tourists visiting Thailand has increased rapidly since the launch of the Amazing Thailand campaign from 1997 to 1999. However, despite successive governments’ vows to make tourist safety a priority, there’s been virtually no sign of improvement.

In the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index 2017-2018, Thailand scored a lowly 118 out of 136 in the category of safety and security, one place lower than the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Road travel is of particular concern. In December 2017, the World Health Organisation ranked Thailand the second deadliest country for road deaths, behind Libya, in a survey of 180 countries. It puts the Thai death toll at 66 a day.

World Atlas, which provides online information on travel, society, economics and environment, meanwhile, ranked 30 countries around the world and gave Thailand the unenviable distinction of being the country with the highest death rate in road accidents.

New Year road deaths soar despite Thailand’s safety campaign

June 2018 alone saw an 8 per cent increase in accidents and a 4 per cent increase in deaths compared with June 2017, according to the Thai Highways Department.

In an editorial, a major English language website for expatriates, suggested that statistics for the death toll on Thai roads are only a fraction of the true count because they only take into consideration deaths on roads under the jurisdiction of the Thai Highways Department – ignoring those on minor roads.

One reason for poor attention to safety might ironically be connected to Thailand’s success in the global tourism industry. The “mai pen rai” (it doesn’t matter) attitude is known for helping provide a relaxed and carefree holiday. Friendly and accommodating as Thais are towards tourists, even to the point of ignoring irregularities and being happy to flout rules for the sake of convenience, this cultural tendency may be part of the problem.

Jaffee Yee, the Chiang Rai-based publisher of Chinese-language magazine NiHao, did not mince words when asked what he sees as the problem.

“Thailand must put [sic] her act together as far as transport safety is concerned. So many innocent people, Thais or foreigners die each year, simply due to the negligence of stakeholders and operators. The law is far too lenient. Heavy fines must be imposed and rogue operators banned for life.”

Chinese tourist Lin Hsiushan, a Beijing-based marketing manager, told the Post she feels safe being in Thailand, but was shocked to hear about the Phuket boat tragedy.

Wandering near the EmQuartier Mall in downtown Bangkok, Lin questions why the Thai government is considering compulsory travel insurance for tourists instead of focusing on making the country safer and reducing the numbers of tourist deaths. “Travel insurance will not make the country safer,” she says.

Rescued tourist slams Phuket boating safety

Li Shengwen, an IT professional from Guangxi province, also says she feels safe travelling in the country, but always travels in a group and would never go out alone at night.

“I think tourism in Thailand is growing very fast and maybe the government should spend more money improving and updating facilities”, she says.

What is clear is that root and branch reform of the tourism industry is long overdue in Thailand. A greater percentage of the revenue generated from the millions of tourists it welcomes every year ought to be spent on providing a safe and secure place for them to enjoy their holidays.