Royal Thai Navy sailors launch a dredging hose in the rough waters off southern Phuket before being forced to abandon the search. (Photo courtesy Public Relations Department)
Authorities failed on Thursday to retrieve the body of the 47th and final victim from the tour boat Phoenix, which sank in the waters off Phuket following a storm last week.
HTMS Thonglang, HTMS Hua Hin and HTMS Panyi left port in tambon Wichit of Muang district Thursday morning to support the operation to retrieve the last body.
Thai Navy divers and rescuers from Guangzhou Salvage, a Chinese rescue operation unit, took part in the mission.
According to a command centre in charge of the operation, Navy divers went down to siphon sand around the sunken boat, which has settled at a depth of 45 metres.
The corpse is pinned by the boat and strong currents made it difficult for divers to retrieve it, authorities said.
The mission was suspended about 5pm Thursday as rip currents became too strong and darkness descended. The operation was expected to resume today.
The Phoenix dive boat capsized with 101 people on board — 89 tourists, all but two from China, and 12 crew — when returning to port after a trip.
Of the 89 tourists, 42 were safely rescued and 46 bodies have been retrieved.
Also on July 5, a yacht named Serenita carrying 39 passengers and two crew capsized near Phuket following a storm but all of its passengers were rescued.
Concerns have been raised about the impact such accidents will have on the tourism industry, which relies heavily on Chinese tourists.
“The Chinese market is the most crucial one,” said permanent secretary for tourism and sports Pongpanu Svetarundra, admitting the boat accidents would have a negative impact on tourism and the economy.
He said 10% to 15% of advance bookings in Phuket have been cancelled following the incidents. Phuket receives 3.5 million Chinese tourists annually who spend a total of 150 billion baht, he said.
“The tourism and sports minister is prepared to hold a meeting with high-ranking officers on Monday to lay out measures to improve the tourism sector,” said Mr Pongpanu.
He stressed that tourism operators must uphold good governance in running their businesses, adding the ministry will discuss the matter with people linked to the Chinese market in a bid to draw visitors back.
Efforts will be made to boost a positive image of Thai tourism to regain people’s confidence.
The ministry will expedite efforts to provide aid to affected tourists as well as boost safety measures to encourage more Chinese tourists to come to Thailand, the permanent secretary said.
Mr Pongpanu said the government will pay 1 million baht in compensation for each casualty and up to 500,000 baht for medical expenses for those who were injured in the latest tragedy. They may also be entitled to payments from insurance firms.
Phuket governor Norraphat Plodthong said compensation was already being handed out at Vachira Phuket Hospital yesterday. The man can be received immediately if relatives are able to prove their relationship with the deceased, he noted.
Relatives of the 41 who died have contacted the authorities to claim their bodies, the governor said, adding that 30 bodies would be cremated in Thailand at the request of their families and the rest sent back to China for funeral rites.
Cremation ceremonies have been organised over the last two days. For relatives who want to repatriate the bodies, the owner of the ill-fated boat must bear the expenses,” said Mr Norraphat.
Vachira Phuket Hospital director Chalermpong Sukontapol said of the 46 bodies retrieved from the sea, 45 have had their identities verified and been placed in Wat Kosit Wihan in Phuket’s Muang district.
Psychologists from Thailand and China will provide counselling services for relatives, he said.
Deputy Tourist Bureau chief Surachate Hakparn said yesterday that several officers could face charges of negligence of duty in relation to the boat accidents.
Evidence will be sent to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) so it can conduct a probe into the officers’ behaviour, he noted.
Authorities are probing TC Blue Dream travel agent, associated with the Phoenix, and Lazy Cat Travel, linked with Serenita, to find out if they have been operating in compliance with the law.
Both companies are believed to be owned by foreigners.
Pol Maj Gen Surachate said foreigners have been using Thai proxies to manage their tourism businesses in Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi.