Phuket's is now the most used foreign airport by mainland Chinese, according to TripAdvisor. On any given day, 5,000 to 6,000 of them pass through Phuket International, accounting for more than a quarter of the total number. But mainlanders also top another Phuket index - of deaths by drowning. A dozen or so died in the aquamarine waters off the island's world famous beaches last year - exact figures are hard to establish, given the varied reports in the local press and the People's Republic remaining tight-lipped on the matter. What is clearer is that there are roughly five times as many "near-misses" - about 60 mainland tourists had to be rescued from the sea last year by lifeguards and Phuket's assorted emergency services, most of them off those beaches with the most reported drownings: Patong, Karon and Kata. Why such high numbers? According to a reporter for a Thai newspaper, speaking on condition of anonymity, there are two factors at play. First, many mainlanders are ignorant of the perils of swimming in the sea. Even if they are proficient swimmers, their experience is limited to the local pool. By contrast, visitors from Australia and other countries with beach cultures are taught about the dangers of the sea - rip tides, strong currents and other hazards - from an early age. "Chinese visitors from the hinterland tend to treat the Andaman Sea as one big swimming pool, but it's nothing like that," says the reporter. Second, mainland tourists all too often pay no heed to red-flag warnings. Such flags are flown - accompanied by warnings in several languages, including simplified Chinese - on certain sections of beaches on days when swimming is deemed dangerous due to large waves, rip tides or other reasons. The reporter believes Chinese tour group operators do not give adequate information on safety and the importance of observing red-flag warnings. The number of fatalities is a major reason behind the Chinese foreign ministry's decision to open a consulate in Phuket later this year. The consulate will co-ordinate safety warnings and advice with mainland tour operators, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and local government emergency services. As a recent editorial in a Phuket newspaper, following a slew of drownings among Chinese visitors, stated: "We want tourists to come here - but we want them to go home again, too."