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Tourism boss plans charm China trip

Thais hold lit candles for the Chinese boat accident victims. (AP photo)

PHUKET: A two-day memorial observance for the 47 Chinese visitors who drowned when their dive boat Phoenix capsized in bad weather concluded Thursday with a candlelight ceremony.

The day’s mass merit-making included a prayer session led by a Buddhist monk, meditation and shared vegetarian meals.

Two tour boats sank off Thailand’s southern resort island of Phuket on July 5. Tourists from one boat were rescued, while the sinking of the double-decker Phoenix left 47 Chinese tourists dead.

The incident was one of Thailand’s worst tourism-related disasters in recent years.

Also Thursday, Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat announced he will visit China next month to try to restore confidence among Chinese tourists of the safety of travelling in southern Thailand.

Speaking after attending the two-day merit-making ceremony in tribute to the victims of the accident, Mr Weerasak said his ministry was working with the Chinese embassy in Thailand and the Thai embassy in Beijing in planning Mr Weerasak’s visit to China to meet his Chinese counterpart.

“It may be too soon to talk about (tourists’) confidence,” said Mr Weerasak after the memorial concluded. “This is a time to heal.

“Monetary compensation has been almost completed. Now we are healing our spirits, since the loss of the Chinese is the loss of life. And the next thing we have to focus on is prosecution” of those responsible.

Phuket officials said five people have been charged so far with responsibility for the tragedy, including the owner and two operators of the Phoenix.

They have been accused of negligence causing death, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Officials said several other people are also under investigation, including some at the company that built the boat.

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Phuket governor Norraphat Plodthong said the island is implementing stricter regulations and improving safety measures for boat operations, including better docking procedures and an improved radio communications system.

“We have asked for cooperation but it hasn’t worked. Now we are implementing strict enforcement (of safety measures) by all agencies, with the governor overseeing the effort. And I believe that other provinces will follow suit,” he said.

Visitors to Thailand from China totalled more than 9.8 million people last year, constituting the largest share by country of a record 35.38 million foreign tourists in all.

But Chinese tourist arrivals in Phuket have fallen off drastically since the sinking of the dive boat, and are down throughout the country.

Phichet Kittikomet, president of Phuket’s Thai-Chinese tourism association said it’s not necessarily connected to the Phoenix tragedy.

The most important factor, he claimed, is that this time of the year is low season in Phuket. Wet weather hampers travel to and around the island province. This explains why a drop in Chinese tourists is not completely unexpected.

Surachai Chaiwat, president of the Phuket Chamber of Commerce, said the declining number of Chinese tourists in Phuket would not last very long. In the months ahead, the province will see Chinese tourism traffic gradually improve.

Measures to better regulate tourist boats and ensure the safety of customers have been put in place since boats are a popular means of transport for foreign tourists, especially the Chinese, he said.

Mr Surachai said all parties involved deserved credit for taking care of Chinese tourists affected by the July 5 disaster.

He added success in the tourism sector requires a concerted effort and sincerity in caring for tourists.