Shoddy work by police in zero-dollar tours case
Acquittal of suspects points to flawed investigation and prosecution
In their effort to ensure that foreign visitors got a fair deal in Thailand – some said it was an attempt to please China – Thai authorities last October brought charges against a group of companies behind so-called “zero-dollar tours”.
The zero-dollar tour is basically a cheap package holiday. In Thailand, this has always been associated with Chinese visitors, who came to Thailand in large groups supervised by operators who appeared to have a near-total control over how and where they spent their money.
For the individual tourist, such a package offered an inexpensive opportunity to see the world; the deal of their life. Not to jump at it would be a mistake. What can go wrong, one might ask. But like everything, the devil is always in the detail.
Last October, the Thai prosecutor charged several local businessmen behind these tours with a wide range of charges, including money laundering, operating tour guide services without charging fees, damaging the country’s tourism industry, taking advantage of tourists and operating unauthorised tour guide services.
The authorities assumed they had a solid case. After all, everybody more or less knew about the scheme, especially the people working the venues where these visiting Chinese had both their accommodation and meals booked in advance and were led to buy goods at inflated prices.
Such venues were off limits to outsiders, meaning that only traders linked to the tour operators were permitted to sell their products. It was not even known for sure if they owned the products they were selling or were just hired hands. The absence of competition meant that the operator and vendors could charge the Chinese tourists whatever they liked.
The operators had buses, lots of them, to take the Chinese tour groups all over the place.
It was just a matter of time, however, before somebody took a stand against such practices. Apart from anything else, it became impossible for the tourists not to find out that the tours were not as cheap as they had been led to believe.
Many of us, including the authorities, knew what was going on all along. We knew there was something wrong but we weren’t sure it was illegal. After all, Thai vendors ripping off foreign visitors has been happening for years.
One can argue about the principle of this being the free market at work, but deep down we knew there was no sense of fair play here. Ripping off is ripping off.
How were the Chinese supposed to know if they were being taken for a ride? It made no sense for anyone to let them in on it, whether it was the people who sold them the package tours or those driving them around Bangkok or those selling them over-priced products.
Last October, the Civil Court seized more than Bt3.6 billion of the tour operators’ assets, intending to turn them into state property. Many of their buses were also confiscated.
This past week, the Criminal Court acquitted these “zero tour” operators and owners, stating that the work of the police and investigators had not been up to standard. The court pointed out that none of the police visited these venues to get a first-hand look as to how the Chinese were being taken advantage of. They had not even interviewed the vendors.
Moreover, the most important missing piece in the jigsaw was the China connection. The prosecutor and investigators had failed to show the link between the package tours being sold in China to the operators in Thailand, said the court. Those on the Thai side could always say that they hadn’t sold anything to the Chinese and that all these transactions had been done in China.
You would think that, in order to build a strong case, investigators would have to visit the very places where the alleged victims were getting ripped off. But instead, the police assumed that the case spoke for itself and that would be enough to secure a legal victory.
In any court of law, however, theory and assumption fall very short – it is not what you believe, it’s what you can prove.
We could all smell something was badly wrong with zero-dollar tours from the very beginning but, legally speaking, where was the one shred of evidence that proved the defendants broke the law?