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Business

Thai tourism hit again after airport guard slaps Chinese visitor

PM issues fast apology on fears that tourists from China may avoid Thailand

Bangkok's Don Mueang airport was one of five Thai airports that opened dedicated immigration lanes for Chinese visitors in an effort to soothe ruffled relations. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BANGKOK -- The quick apology issued by the Thai prime minister after an airport security guard slapped a Chinese tourist reveals the government's concern over the incident, which could cause a slowdown in visitors from China.

Tourism is a key pillar of the Thai economy and Chinese tourists make up the largest portion of foreign visitors. The Thai government was quick to apologize to the Chinese national, Mei Ji, who was slapped by a security guard as he tried to enter the country at Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport on Sept. 27.

"The officer hit me," Mei yelled angrily, pleading for someone to record a video of the confrontation. One surfaced and eventually went viral on Chinese social media.

The timing of the incident could not have been worse for Thailand, occurring just ahead of China's weeklong National Day holidays that started on Oct. 1. The speed at which the government apologized is indicative of the importance the tourism-reliant country places on visitors from China, who are already upset after a summer boat accident killed about 50 Chinese nationals.

The apology came from the top, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha saying through his spokesperson that he was "upset" by the incident. "Even though the tourist could not produce documents to confirm his accommodations in Thailand, refused to stay in a detention room, and acted inappropriately, officials should still have treated him according to international norms," he said.

The two parties differed on what sparked the incident. Mei claimed that it happened after an argument over his refusal to pay 2,300 baht ($70) for a fast-track visa service. The visitor thought the fee was unfair, as Thailand normally charges 2,000 baht for an arrival visa, with an extra 200 baht for express service.

However, the company that manages the airport said that Mei failed to present information required to enter Thailand, including return tickets and details regarding accommodation. The company also said that Mei was difficult while being taken to a detention room.

Tourism and related industries generate about 20% to 30% of Thailand's gross domestic product. Of the 35.3 million foreign visitors to the country in 2017, about 9.8 million were from China -- by far the largest number -- followed by 3.3 million from Malaysia and 1.7 million from South Korea.

The government had hoped to attract more than 10 million Chinese in 2018, but the latest incidents have dimmed this prospect.

In July, about 50 Chinese died after a boat capsized in heavy seas off the popular tourist destination of Phuket, and the government's initial reaction was not helpful. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan criticized the victims for not heeding weather warnings, prompting outrage from Chinese, many of whom canceled their travel plans to the country.

According to a survey by Chinese online travel agency Ctrip, Japan overtook Thailand as the most popular destination this fall, an indicator of the warming relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

The Thai government is working hard to make up for the latest problems, with the Ministry of Tourism and Sports planning to award 65.9 million baht in compensation to victims of the boat accident. In August, the government even opened special immigration lanes for Chinese tourists at five of the nation's main airports, including Don Mueang.

This time, Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat is considering granting Chinese tourists double-entry visas over a six-month period, possibly starting on Oct. 18. This was seen by many as another way to keep Chinese tourists coming.

It remains to be seen how damaging the slap could be to the nation's tourism industry. For now, Chinese can still heard be heard on the streets of Bangkok, but this could change if the industry takes another hit.

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