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Thailand's cave rescue drama highlights risk to tourism boom

Junta already talking of making the site a vacation destination despite lax safety

The boys and their soccer coach as they were found in a partially flooded cave, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, Thailand.   © Tham Luang Rescue Operation Center via AP

BANGKOK -- The massive rescue operation for 12 schoolboys and a soccer coach trapped in a cave has thrown a spotlight on safety in Thailand's fast-growing tourism business.

The government has decided to close 169 caves across the nation until safety concerns are properly assessed, according to Thanya Nethithammakul, who heads the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. Visitors will now have to register before entering caves, Thanya said on Friday.

He had admitted earlier that the inadequate safety measures at Tham Luang, where the soccer team is trapped, were a "mistake." A flood warning at the cave entrance said visitors should not go in "from July to November."

The boys and their coach entered on June 23. Heavy downpours caused water to flood in, blocking the way out and forcing them to retreat deeper inside.

The group was found alive by two British divers on July 2, more than a week after disappearing. The survival of the 13 was hailed as a miracle and made headlines around the world.

Thai tourism authorities want to make the most of the international attention. The rescue operation is still ongoing -- a diver delivering oxygen tanks died on Friday after his own air supply ran out. But government officials, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, are already speaking of the cave as a future tourist destination.

"The cave has become famous worldwide," Prayuth reportedly said on Tuesday. "It will be an important tourist resource for Thailand and we will work on measures to accommodate tourism activities," he noted.

Rescued tourists from a boat that sank are helped onto a pier from a fishing boat on July 5 on the island of Phuket, southern Thailand.   © Thailand Royal Police via AP

The tourism sector directly accounts for over 10% of Thailand's gross domestic product and has grown rapidly in recent years on a surge in domestic and international travelers, thanks to more flights from low-cost carriers and rising incomes.

But safety concerns could put a damper on the boom. The country already has one of the world's highest road traffic fatality rates. Other accidents involving tourists, especially in the rainy season, are not unusual.

A boat carrying dozens of Chinese tourists capsized on Thursday while sailing in rough waters off the southern province of Phuket. At least 32 had been found dead as of Friday evening, with 23 still missing, according to local media, making the accident one of the worst boat tragedies in the country.

Local officials had warned of the storm, but tour operators sent boats out anyway, according to Phuket Gov. Norapat Plodthong. Another boat also capsized on the Phuket waters, while two tourists on personal watercraft were also reported missing.

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