Government chiefs add to the blundering that led to a boating disaster
While the world’s attention was understandably focused on dramatic efforts to rescue the youth football team trapped in a Chiang Rai cave, it was a terrible shame that the boating catastrophe off Phuket last Thursday went relatively unnoticed. Quite apart from the appalling loss of life, it revived serious questions about tourist safety and could – and should – have a significant impact on the Thai travel industry.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was in Phuket on Monday, scolding government officials for failing to ensure the safety of foreign visitors. But it must be said that he is the one who has the most responsibility to bear.
The vessels Phoenix and Serenata capsized and sank in the sea off Phuket, their operators and skippers having ignored warnings of high waves. Of the 133 tourists aboard the two boats, 127 were Chinese. Everyone on the Serenata was rescued. Passengers on the Phoenix fared far less well. As of press time, there were 43 confirmed dead and nine still missing.
Prayut’s tardy visit may have been spurred in part by bellowing from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who within a day of the accident was demanding all-out efforts to find and rescue the missing people and take care of the injured. China’s embassy in Bangkok organised its own full-scale operation to aid the Thai effort and to arrange for relatives of the victims to travel to Phuket. Meanwhile Thailand’s embassy in Beijing was also assisting family members wanting to come to Thailand and was keeping their countrymen apprised of developments. Our consular offices in both Beijing and Shanghai stayed open through the weekend to process visa applications and Chinese arriving at Thai airports were granted automatic visas.
However, senior officials in the military-led government demonstrated characteristic clumsiness in dealing with crises. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan had to publicly apologise for blaming the foreigners for not heeding foul-weather warnings. Prayut’s anger with Phuket officials – he felt there should have been better management of the tour boats, plus technology to track them – was even more galling. If blame is to be apportioned for such shortcomings, it should directed at his administration.
The premier senses that, with more tourists visiting Thailand all the time, more accidents are likely if the local travel industry doesn’t improve safety measures. It’s a sound prediction, but who’s responsible for ensuring the improvements are made? The government needs to invest more thought, money and time into tourist safety. It’s simple logic, whereas investing in rude rebukes is utterly counterproductive.
Tourism generates 10 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product and has for a century been one of the most robust sectors of the economy. In recent years China has become the largest source of tourists coming to Thailand, with nearly 10 million of its citizens visiting the Kingdom last year.
Prayut gains no ground for anyone by singling out the tour company booking the ill-fated boats as being an illegal operation. There may well be illegality involved if it’s proved the firm was linked to the so-called “zero-dollar” tours that lure so many Chinese here, and the firm will be duly prosecuted if that’s the case. But this still doesn’t get Prayut off the hook. He’s supposed to in charge. It is
ultimately his responsibility to ensure Thai tourism is legal, safe and
non-discriminatory. We need to see government investment in tourism that goes far beyond colourful