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Holidays from hell?… in Thailand? – Karnjana Karnjanatawe



From bus & motorcycle accidents to derailed trains, tourists are worried about safety. Should they be?


BANGKOK – When violent unforeseen events turn your dream vacation into a nightmare who can you turn to for help and who is ultimately at fault? During the last two weeks of June, two incidents in popular holiday destinations were serious enough to make headlines.

Three foreigners sustained gunshot injuries in Chiang Mai when a drunkencollege student opened fire in a restaurant. And in Phuket, a Russian man was slapped around and a fakerevolver pressed against his foreheadby the jealousboyfriend of a Thai woman with whom the Russian had become friendly.

A State Railways of Thailand (SRT) train has derailed in the northern Thai province of Denchai, injuring 23 passengers.


Sexual assaults are always newsworthy but few in recentyears have been as widely publicised as that by the so-called “Evil Man of Krabi”, the title given an angry video clipposted on YouTube last year by the father of a Dutch teenagerraped while on holiday here.


Another threatto tourists’ safety was again brought to the forelast week by the deadly bus accident in Saraburi in which 19 people lost their lives. Although no foreigners were killed in the collisionbetween a cementtruck and a passengercoach, reports in the internationalmediagave the impressionthat safety standards tend to be poor in Thailand and transportaccidents relatively common.


Accounts by foreign TV stations and newspapers mentioned the derailing, earlier this month, of an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai, in which 23 people, including 18 foreign tourists, were injured and referred to another accident in April when five people, including a Belgian woman, were killed when a tour bus plummeted off a hillside in Phitsanulok after its brakes failed.


The rashof negativereports prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul to issuea statementassuring the world that tourist safety was one of the government’s top priorities. According to statistics compiled by the tourist police, an average of 8.5 complaints are made each day.


“But that doesn’t mean that Thailand is unsafe for tourists,” said Pol Maj Gen Roy Inkapairoj, commander of the Tourist Police Division. “When something happens to tourists, police make an effortto catch a suspector suspects as fast as we can.”


Last year the tourist police dealt with 3,119 cases, an increase of 26.6% on the figure for 2011. About 82% of those complaints involved the loss of valuables(1,798 reports) or documents (183 cases) or the theft of belongingsfrom public buses (587 incidents). Another 15% of the complaints were from the victims of scams, mostly by jewellers (341 reports), tailors (55) and tour agents (60). The remaining 3% of complaints related to physical assault(85 cases) and tourists being given spiked drinks (seven reports).


However, during the first four months of this year, the number of reports of physical attacks on tourists (87) has already surpassed the total for all of last year. “The situationis tense but it is still in hand” said Pol Maj Gen Roy. “Although our workforceremains the same, the number of foreign tourists has increased every year. We have managed to keep the ratio down to less than 20 criminal cases per 100,000 tourists.

A majority of tourists rode motorbikes without having a driving licence and with little or no driving experience.


“Every country has bad guys, otherwise there wouldn’t be policemen. If a bad guy sees a chance to deceive someone, he will. Tourists should know how to avoid putting themselves at risk. They shouldn’t go walking alone late at night in desertedplaces, for instance or go around with total strangers.


“Sometimes a difference in culture might lead to different thinking or misinterpretations, so tourists should be awareof who they are associating with.”


When things go as planned, Thailand can be a paradisefor people on vacation but given the large volume of tourist arrivals and the law of averages accidents and crime are to be expected. But has the risk to our foreign guests become unacceptably high? The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013 ranks Thailand in 10th place in terms of road-accident fatalities. India tops the list; followed by China, Brazil, the US and Indonesia.


In Southeast Asia, Indonesia had the worst toll with 31,234 deaths caused by road accident. Thailand came next (13,766 deaths), followed by Vietnam (11,029), the Philippines (6,941), Malaysia (6,872), Myanmar (2,464), Cambodia (1,816), Laos (790), Singapore (193) and Brunei (46). The WHO found that half of the world’s road traffic deaths occur among motorcyclists (23%), pedestrians (22%) and cyclists (5%), but in Thailand a staggering 74% of the total fatalities were accounted for by people riding motorbikes or motorised three-wheel vehicles.


While one of the chief causes of road accidents here is still alcohol consumption, another factor, according to research done by a team from Thammasat University, is recklessness on the part of tourists. For a project called “Tourist Satisfaction and Travel Behaviour of Safe Journeys for Foreign Tourists”, the researchers polled 800 people (tourists, service providers and officials) in six populartourist destinations including Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. They found that the majority of tourists rode motorbikes without having a driving licence and with little or no driving experience.


“Some tourists have never driven motorcycles in their lives, but they rent motorbikes here to look around on,” said Assoc Prof Pawinee Iamtrakul, assistant dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat.


One of the reasons for this is that motorbike-hire shops take advantage of a loophole in the law and only require tourists to show their passport rather than a driving licence, Dr Pawinee explained. The survey found that 64.5% of tourist drivers did not have internationaldriving licences, 65% were unfamiliar with Thai rules of the road and 70% were unaware of the penalties for breaking traffic laws here.


Almost half of those polled said they would drink and drive and would have no compunction about exceeding the speed limit. About 59% of them said they do not use seatbelts and 58% do not wear helmets. About one-fifth of tourists polled did not have travel insurance. About 33% of tour agents were found not to pay travel insurance for tourists in their charge.


In addition, one-third of local service providers do not carry out regular maintenance on vehicles used for ferrying tourists around. More than half of the tourists polled felt that road-safety standards in Thailand were lower than in their home countries for every mode of land transportation. Other concerns were that traffic-law enforcement here is far from stringent and that when tourists have an accident, they do not know whom or how to ask for help.


“Visitors do not know what number to ring in an emergency,” Dr Pawinee said, adding that the police 191 call-centre number is often hard to get through to, anyway. It might be useful if there was one centre to take care of road-safety issues for tourists while road-safety policy should be made part of any national tourism policy, she added. Tourists should be given safety guidelines and emergency numbers when they do online searches for travel information about Thailand, she said, adding that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) should consider putting such information on the front page of its website.


According to Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak, tourist safety is one of his top priorities since it affects the confidence of foreign visitors in travelling freely around this country.


“The principal thing is not to have any crime. But if there is wrongdoing, assistance should be offered as quickly as possible,” he said, making the point that taking care of tourists involved in unfortunate incidents was as important as preventing such incidents in the first place; his reasoning was that while physical injuries can usually be healed, mental trauma is harder to recover from. The minister cited the caseof a speedboat crash in Pattaya in which three Korean visitors, including a child, were injured One of the victims, who worked as a taxi driver in his home town, lost a leg as a result of the accident.


“His wife cried hopelessly when I went to visit them. It was truly our faultso, as a representative of the Thai government, I went to the hospital [in Pattaya] to make an official apology,” he said.


“A lesson has been learned and we must not let this sort of thing happen again. It is unacceptable that those offering speed boats for hire in such a well-known tourist destinationas Pattaya do not have to adhere to any safety standards,” Somsak said, adding this was just one among many issues related to tourist safety that need to be addressed.


A memorandum of understanding is soon to be signed, opening the way for the establishment of a special court of law to try offences involving tourists, he noted, adding: “We will try to tighten up all the judicial processes.”


As Thailand’s economic growth depends on the growth of its tourism industry, the minister said, it is an absolute must for all parties concerned to make the security issuea national priority. A recent spate of accidents in the Kingdom has brought the issue of traveller safety to the fore. – Karnjana Karnjanatawe

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