The fallout from the recent, tragic boat accident off the Thai resort island of Phuket is still ongoing. Last Thursday, the Phoenix tour boat was sunk by rough seas with 89 tourists on board, 87 of whom were Chinese. The current death count stands at 42 dead and five missing. For Thai authorities, the accident will prove to be a major economic challenge going forward. The perception that Thailand is an unsafe tourist destination will undoubtedly dissuade thousands, if not millions, of Chinese tourists from traveling to Thailand.

The current death count of the Phoenix accident stands at 42

On the other hand, the accident also illustrates the complex, and often messy, relationship Thailand’s tourism industry has with unscrupulous Chinese tour operators. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has blamed the Chinese operators of the Phoenix tour boat for the disaster. Wongsuwan was quoted by Reuters arguing, “Some Chinese use Thai nominees to bring Chinese tourists in … they did not heed warnings … which is why this incident happened. This needs to be remedied.”

Chinese authorities have reportedly requested that Thailand step up safety efforts to better protect the well-being of Chinese tourists in the country. However, Phuket authorities have noted that the Chinese operators of the ship, who had registered under a Thai name, had sent the boat out that day, despite local warnings about dangerous waters.

Regardless, it’s unclear if this particular tragedy was caused by the negligence of the Chinese operators of the Phoenix at this time. However, Thailand has struggled with exploitative Chinese tour operators in the past, in particular, the so-called “zero-dollar” tours. Chinese operators forcing tourists to go on “forced shopping” trips and only eating Chinese-owned eateries not only cuts local Thai business owners out of the industry, but also can give a poor impression of Thailand among these tourists.

Thai authorities are keen on making sure the incident does not significantly damage Thailand’s tourism industry

In this most recent Phoenix accident, the Thai government has made tremendous efforts to reduce the potential negative impact of the accident on the perception of Thai tourism. In particular, authorities are providing 1 million baht ($30,202) to each of the victims’ families.

Another sign of how seriously authorities are treating this tragedy, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha traveled to Phuket to inspect the ongoing rescue efforts. During his visit, he stressed the importance of Sino-Thai relations, noting, “Thailand and China are like brothers, and we must take good care of our friendship.”

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