Tourist police raided five Bangkok companies alleged to be the country's biggest "zero-dollar tour" network operating illegal, poor-quality package tours and related businesses catering mostly to Chinese visitors.
Armed with a search warrant, a joint force of over 50 officers, led by Tourist Police Division commander Maj Gen Surachet Hakphan, raided the companies in Lat Krabang district on Wednesday. The government only revealed the raids yesterday.
The five firms are OA Transport Co, a rental vehicle firm, and its four affiliated companies: Bangkok Handicraft Centre Co, which sells leather goods; Royal Gems International Co, a jewellery firm; Royal Thai Herb Co, which sells herbal products; and Royal Paradise Co, which operates restaurants. Two executives of OA Transport were also arrested.
The five companies operated stores in tourist destinations across the country.
Zero-dollar tours offer very cheap package deals in which tourists, mostly Chinese, are pressured to buy overpriced goods and services.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry said authorities have stepped up efforts to tackle the tours by investigating nominee travel agents and checking company registrations and tax payments.
The raid was launched after tourist police apprehended proprietors of two Chinese travel companies -- Fuan Travel Co and Xin Yuan Travel Co -- for allegedly running zero-dollar tours early this month, government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said yesterday.
The owners face charges of using fake Thai identity cards to set up the companies.
Authorities later widened the probe and found OA Transport was a key agency that ran zero-dollar tours in Thailand. It also owned more than 3,000 tour buses.
Buses and documents were seized from the companies for further investigation.
Police also suspected the five firms had money and assets together worth over 10 billion baht from operating illegal tours.
However, the money Chinese tourists spend in Thailand on zero-dollar tours mostly goes to Chinese-operated tour firms owned by Thai nominees. While there may appear to be more Chinese tourists, overall revenue has not gone up significantly.
Tourists are transferred on arrival to a tour agency that takes them to stores that sell products at inflated prices or the customers are forced to buy extra tour services.
"The investigation found Chinese tourists will be charged about 35% more for their package tours after arriving in Thailand. The companies also evade taxes and the revenue generated by the tourists will eventually go back to companies in China," Maj Gen Sansern said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had instructed authorities to take serious action against the zero-dollar tour network.