An accident waiting to happen
It is sad to know that tourist safety would be treated as a national issue only when there is a fatal accident.
This time it is a boat tragedy in Phuket, which killed 47 Chinese tourists. It is an issue the government can't run away from its responsibility by pointing its finger at the tour operators, TC Blue Dream and Lazy Cat Travel, who are blamed for disregarding the weather warning of the rough seas.
TC Blue Dream operated the Phoenix tour boat, which had 89 passengers, half of whom were found dead after the ship capsized due to stormy seas on July 5 while passengers onboard the Lazy Cat Travel's Serenata tour boat, on the other hand, were all rescued. I am sure that none of the passengers who trusted the services of both companies were aware that their family vacation, their company's reward trips or their honeymoons would end in tragedy.
When I asked the Marine Department's Phuket office chief, Surat Sirisaiyat, why the tour operators -- and others lucky enough to sail out their ferries without having an accident on that day -- did not follow the department's warning, he said: "The warning is a recommendation. There is no legal enforcement."
He elaborated that the law stated that every vessel weighing at least 60 tonnes must inform the department of its destination and the number of passengers and must be approved by the department before leaving port.
The problem here is not about the size of the boat, but the definition of "port". According to Surat, "port" in a legal context means only "deep-sea port", he said. The deep-sea port in Phuket is located in Ao Makham in Muang district. It means boats leaving from any other port need not report to the authorities or obtain approval before they set sail.
In the case of the Phoenix tour boat, it left from Koh Racha to Phuket. Koh Racha is about 12km south of Phuket and is known as a diving and snorkelling site and popular destination for day trippers.
"It is the sole responsibility of the captain who decided to sail out despite our warning," said Surat.
It is sad but it is true, he said, that there is no law that ensures captains or owners of tour boats adhere to the authority's warning.
The explanation is unacceptable to me. It reflects the poor management of not only the Marine Department, but the Transport Ministry, which oversees the Marine Department as well as the government as they fail to address the simple matter that can prevent catastrophe.
This is not the first or surely the last such incident. Last November, a tourist boat sank in Phangnga Bay, injuring one passengers and, luckily, 16 visitors were safe. Last July, a tourist boat capsized due to rough seas in Chumphon, leaving five people dead and 11 injured.
The list of incidents can go on. It obviously shows that the government has not taken any significant action to solve the problem; otherwise, the incident would not be repeated.
In addition of lacking regulation, the enforcement of the vessel tracking system is not that strict.
"We have the Vessel Traffic Service [VTS] centre to monitor and navigate vessels. By law, it states that every boat that has a capacity to carry more than 25 passengers must implement an automatic identification system so the centre can monitor their movement. However, no one knows if those vessels will keep the tracking system on or switch it off when they sail out," he said.
The last problem he pointed to is the outdated vessel act. "The world is changing while new technology is developed. The old law cannot cope with the change and new technology," he said.
The police, however, have another explanation for the incident to share.
Based on a preliminary investigation, police found that the two companies ran substandard tour operations, including the use of uncertified life vests.
The Deputy Tourist Police Bureau Chief, Pol Maj Gen Surachate Hakparn, also reported that, based on the vessel blueprint, the Phoenix was poorly designed and had not been built to standard requirements. It does not have inadequate emergency exits.
The question immediately rises of who approved the operation license. And the finger point to the Marine Department.
As about 20% of the country's GDP is generated from the travel and tourism industry, and the number of tourists keeps increasing, the government must have concrete solutions to guarantee the safety and security of tourists. And stop pointing the finger.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.