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Politics

Thai junta desperate to retain Chinese tourism after capsizing kills dozens

PM Prayuth visits area of boat accident and promises China’s Xi to step up safety measures

Rescued survivors rest in a fishing boat after the vessel they were travelling in capsized off the tourist island of Phuket, Thailand.   © Reuters

CHIANG RAI, Thailand -- Following pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the southern resort of Phuket on Monday to inspect ongoing rescue operations of Chinese tourists that were thrown into rough waters when their boat capsized on Thursday. 

The boat was carrying 89 tourists, mostly Chinese. As of Monday morning, 41 had been found dead while 11 were still missing.

“Today I am not here to blame anyone; I came to show my support,” Prayuth told reporters in Phuket on Monday. "Thailand and China are like brothers and we must take good care of our friendship."

He met with local authorities and instructed them to prioritize securing the safety of tourists, especially regarding sea-related touristic activities, local media reported. He also met with the Chinese ambassador to Thailand, Lyu Jian, who was at the command center of the joint rescue operation between Thailand and China. 

Prior to this, Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat met with Lyu on Friday evening to report the Thai authorities' handling of the tragedy.

According to a statement from the Chinese Embassy, Lyu said China had been “deeply shocked by the incident and the heavy casualties it has inflicted on the Chinese side."

He carried messages from President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.

Xi called for “all efforts in searching for the missing and treating the injured,” while Li asked that the aftermath of the indicent was dealt with properly.

In a press conference that followed, Weerasak revealed that the Chinese were asking Thailand to step up its safety measures in the tourism industry.

On Sunday, Prayuth sent a letter to Xi saying: “I… wish to assure you that the Thai government and all relevant authorities… attach the utmost importance in addressing the incident.” He added that Thailand was determined “to do its utmost to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents involving any tourists and visitors in the future.”

The Phuket authorities have said that weather warnings were issued before the incident. The operator of the capsized boat, which is a Chinese-owned company registered under a Thai name, went out into the storm regardless of the warning.

The incident will be a blow to Thailand’s important tourism industry. China is the largest source of tourists in the country, with some 9.8 million Chinese visiting in 2017, up 12% from the year before.

Tourism directly generates 10% of Thailand’s gross domestic product and is one of the most robust sectors of the economy.

Prayuth is desperate not to lose Chinese visitors. A tourism sector analyst at Krungsri Research, who preferred not to be named, said that a recovery of confidence, which is an important factor in tourism, among Chinese visitors could take some time. “It will depend on the Thai government’s actions and compensation measures,” the analyst said.

“Depending on how the situation resolves, it will impact relations between Thailand and China," the analyst added. 

The safety standards of Thai tourism are already attracting international attention with the dramatic efforts to rescue 12 schoolboys and their football coach, who have been trapped in a flooded cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai. Four of them were rescued on Monday while operations were continuing for the remaining nine.

There was a sign at the entrance of the cave warning that it could be dangerous during the rainy season between July and November. The boys entered the cave on June 23.

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