Thai rescue workers attend to passengers brought back to Phuket after two tourist boats sank in rough seas on July 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Kritsada Muenhawong

Thai authorities have moved to ramp up safety measures on the tourist island of Phuket and nearby sites on the Andaman coast after the death of 47 Chinese tourists on a large dive boat that sank during a storm earlier this month.

The sinking of the ‘Phoenix’ tour boat on July 5 exposed gaping holes in the country’s oversight of vessels used for marine tourism, including for day trips out of Phuket.

The tragedy has also been a huge economic blow for Phuket, with more than 7,300 bookings canceled this month and next by booking agencies in China. At least six Chinese carriers have reportedly stopped flying to Phuket altogether due to the accident.

The ‘Phoenix’ was one of several vessels that got into trouble after ignoring warnings to not go to sea because of a gale warning.

The tragedy spurred remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping urging Thailand to upgrade its laws and regulations to better protect tourists – on land, in the air and on water.

A Chinese relative cries at the Vachira Phuket Hospital on July 8 after the sinking of the ‘Phoenix’ tour boat. Divers recovered 47 bodies. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

‘$1 billion revenue hit’

One local tourism chief said the accident could cost the country more than $1 billion in lost revenues as Chinese travelers – currently Thailand’s largest source of foreign tourists – begin to shun the country. Chinese media covered the boat accident extensively.

Chinese tourism has injected vast sums in recent years into regional countries, but none more than Thailand. Last year, around 10 million of the 35 million tourists who visited the kingdom arrived from China. Industry estimates show they spent about 560 billion baht (US$16.8 billion) while in the country.

Tourism has long been a main engine of the Thai economy, currently contributing about 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). That figure is much higher when associated industries are factored in, economists say.

In the first six months of 2018, nearly six million Chinese visited Thailand, putting Chinese arrivals on a record pace.

However, local tourism associations now fear that Chinese arrivals could be hit during the Golden Week holiday at the beginning of October if the government is unable to reassure China that safety measures have been sufficiently improved.

Phuket Governor Noraphat Plodthong has said provincial officials, navy personnel and Marine Department officers will soon start to check all boats, their captains and passengers before trips.

The provincial Tourism and Sport Office has been ordered to check boat equipment, including life vests, to ensure that all passengers get one. Operators will also have to tell passengers how to use safety gear before boats set out to sea. Authorities will also publish safety pamphlets in five languages.

The governor wants the government to set up a command center in Phang Nga, the adjacent province, to regulate all tourist activity in the Andaman Sea. The center could cover Phuket, Krabi, Trang and Phang Nga provinces, while Phuket would also have vessels at Ao Por, Ratchata Harbor and Chalong, with closed-circuit and surveillance TV systems installed.

Thai ‘owner’ may be a nominee: police

Police inquiries into the Phoenix boat tragedy have found that the vessel was owned by a company known as TC Blue Dream. Woralak Rerkchaikan, a 26-year-old Thai woman listed as its biggest shareholder, is now in detention. However, police have suggested that she is just a “ghost” nominee.

Her Chinese husband, Zhang Wenhao, has denied being the real owner of the operation and insists he is just a dive instructor, Chinese and Thai media outlets have reported.

The Thai captain of the vessel has also been detained and charged with recklessness causing death and injury, along with the managing director and mechanics.

Police are trying to determine if the vessel’s owners cut back on safety equipment to save costs. A senior tourist police official has said the vessel had just one pump, not four, and that resulted in it sinking just five minutes after taking water off, one Phuket news outlet reported.

Police are also looking to see if they can prove the owner of the ‘Phoenix’ and the ‘Serenata’, another vessel that sank on the same day, used nominees in a bid to evade taxes.

Link to ‘zero-dollar tours’?

Authorities have said they suspect the boat owners may be linked to operators of cheap tour packages known as “zero-dollar tours“. These are cheap tours from China that are notorious for their low quality in which tourists are often coerced into buying products at inflated prices once they get to Thailand. Operators reportedly evade taxes through the use of shops and businesses in the same network.

Thai authorities have cracked down on operators of these tours, which are blamed for causing major damage to Thailand, both financially and by hurting its tourism image. But enforcement is often weak.

Over the past four years, Thai officials have filed lawsuits against nearly 300 firms found to have violated the Foreign Business Act by using proxy Thai owners.

But none have been filed against businesses in Phuket, a senior official told the Bangkok PostPolice say if the owners of the ‘Phoenix’ or the ‘Serenata’ – a smaller vessel whose 42 passengers and crew were all rescued – are found to have used nominees, they could have their assets seized.

The operation to recover the 47 bodies from the ‘Phoenix’ took 11 days and involved significant resources – 16 boats, eight helicopters and dozens of divers, including many from overseas.

Meanwhile, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and other government leaders have come to realize that safety also needs to be improved on the country’s roads, as Thailand has one of the worst road safety records in the world.

A government spokesman said: “After the [sinking of the ‘Phoenix’] occurred we have been focusing on emergency responses so that tourists can feel more assured of their safety. But the premier has stressed that [it applies to] all sectors, be it boats, buses, vans…”

With such vast revenues at risk, it’s hardly surprising that the government is on edge. But once the spotlight fades, many expect the old mai pen rai – never mind – attitude will return. That’s the challenge they face.