Phuket Tragedy Underlines the Issue of Handling China Tourism

Thailand, safety, China, Phuket

A child survivor of the capsized tourist boat in Thailand being carried into a hospital in China for treatment on Sunday. More than 40 people - mostly Chinese tourists - died in the incident and 11 remain missing.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The tragedy of a sinking boat in Phuket on July 5 who killed 44 tourists from China is raising many issues about safety but also about the way of handling large numbers of Chinese visitors.

A ferry carrying tourists from China sunk due to bad weather. It carried on board 89 travellers, from which half of them perished.  Despite immediate rescue from Thai authorities, the disaster is one of the worst in recent years in Thai tourism history.

The tragedy opened however a debate over the ones carrying the responsibility of such a catastrophe. Is it the boat owner, Thai authorities or even Chinese tour companies to be blame? The issue can be a burning one as it could have serious consequence over the image of Thailand, especially in China.

Thailand is a big tourism nation, as tourism generates 12% of the GDP and is creating millions of direct and indirect employment. And of course, not all can just be perfect. Despite being generally a safe place to visit, some companies are flouting with rules, operating services on the brink of illegality by overlooking at common safety standards. In the past, crashing buses, sinking boats, jet ski scams, collapsing clubs and other unpleasant or tragic issues tainted Thailand reputation, raising among travellers concerns about the Kingdom’s safety record.

In Phuket, questions have been raised about why the boat had set out to sea despite warnings of bad weather.

But the situation turned sour when Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed Chinese tour operators for not respecting Thai safety legislation and using Thai proxies who are only concerned about ways to fill up the pockets of their companies.

” This needs to be remedied,” General Prawit said without really elaborating. Although many experts believe that this is still Thailand which should bear the responsibility of such tragedy, some others feel that the way Chinese companies operate around the world should be better regulate and enforced. It is not unusual that a Chinese investor would actually use a local nominee to operate into a market.

Prawit comment generated a flow of critics and angry comments in Chinese social media, forcing the government to issue an apology. This situation highlights however the increasing degree of dependance of countries in Southeast Asia towards China.

While the Chinese inbound travel market is an opportunity to bring money to a country, it has also negative consequences. To become to dependent of China puts actually local governments under pressure. The Thai apology highlights that the Kingdom is to dependent of Chinese money.

This could turn even worst. They are rumours that some large Chinese tour operators would redirect their tourists to other destinations as they felt upset by Prawit remarks. Although a diminution in total number of Chinese tourists would probably have a positive effect of bringing a better balance in tourist origins, a possible boycott would also translate into revenue losses as well as depriving many people from an income.

They are certainly ways to reach the right balance between Thai tourism expectations and the desire of Chinese travellers to come to the Kingdom. Negotiations about the number of tourists able to come and stay in Thailand, the price they must pay would certainly contribute to raise the quality of travellers from China. And also provide some relief to often overloaded destinations and travel companies.

Losing tourists from China might actually bear a high price for many Thai companies. But it might also help redefining the base Thailand tourism should grow over the years to come. And put the safety of travellers as a top priority, without compromising or blaming other parties….