Thai Minister Blames Chinese Tour Operators for Boat Disaster as Death Toll Hits 44

July 10, 2018 Updated: July 10, 2018

BANGKOK—Rescue workers pulled three more bodies from the Andaman Sea on July 10 as authorities and relatives began identifying more than 40 dead from a boat accident near Phuket, Thailand, a popular tourist destination, last week. The update emerged as a Thai government official blasted Chinese tour operators for irresponsibly bringing tourists out to sea during dangerous weather conditions.

The Phoenix tourist boat went down in rough seas on July 5 with 101 people on board, including 89 tourists, all but two of them from China, during an outing to a small island for snorkeling. Twelve Thai crew were also on board.

“Three more bodies were found, one found near Phi Phi island,” Somnuek Prempramote, commander of Naval Area 3, told reporters on Phuket, off Thailand’s west coast.

Forty-four people have been confirmed dead, officials said on July 10, making it Thailand’s worst tourist-related disaster in years and underscoring safety concerns about the industry.

There were 54 survivors, and the search for three missing people would continue if the weather allowed, Somnuek said.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed Chinese tour operators for not respecting Thai safety laws.

“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,” Prawit said. He did not elaborate on his comments.

Chinese netizens soon took to the internet to criticize Prawit’s remarks, prompting him to apologize while speaking to reporters on July 10.

“If I said something that failed to please people, I want to apologize,” he said, according to a Bangkok Post report.

Two other boats capsized in the same area on July 5 but their passengers were brought safely to shore.

The captain of the Phoenix has been charged with negligence causing death, police said. He has denied the charges.

More than 50 Chinese families have arrived in Phuket to identify the bodies of relatives and take care of survivors, Thai media reported on July 9.

Thailand’s tourism ministry said it would give 1 million baht ($30,202) in compensation to each family of the victims.

Tourism accounts for about 12 percent of gross domestic product in Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, making it one of the most important drivers of growth. Such disasters inevitably raise questions about damage to the industry.

Chinese tourists accounted for nearly one-third of last year’s record 35 million foreign arrivals.

But despite accidents, political turmoil and even bomb attacks over the past decade, the tourism sector seems immune to bad headlines, earning it the nickname “Teflon Thailand.”

In August 2015, 20 people were killed, many of them Chinese tourists, in a bombing at a Bangkok shrine, the worst attack of its kind on Thai soil.

Chinese tourist arrivals dipped slightly after the attack but soon recovered.

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Pracha Hariraksapitak, Chayut Setboonsarng, Aukkarapon Niyomyat, and Philip Wen.