BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul apologised after saying that foreigners should be "kicked out of Thailand" for refusing to wear face masks.
Mr Anutin made his initial remarks to reporters during his morning visit to Bangkok's central shopping district to distribute masks to people in the area.
Some tourists refused to accept the surgical masks, prompting his comments. He later apologised on his Facebook page for "losing it".
The outburst came as the kingdom faced steep losses over a drop in visitors from China, where the virus has killed more than 600 people and prompted sweeping travel restrictions.
Tourism accounts for 18 per cent of the country's gross domestic product and Chinese holidaymakers make up a quarter of total arrivals.
Thailand has detected 25 coronavirus cases and nine of those patients have recovered, while streets, public transport and shopping centres have filled with people wearing face masks.
Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul was distributing masks at a busy Skytrain entrance in Bangkok when he complained that "farang" tourists didn't take them and acted as if they "don't care".
Farang is a commonly used Thai word to describe Westerners and is sometimes used dismissively.
"These kinds of people, we should kick them out of Thailand," he told reporters, waving a handful of masks in the air.
More than 10 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand last year but the industry projects about two million fewer arrivals in 2020 because of the coronavirus, making the United States, European and other markets more vital.
Debates over the efficacy of masks have bounced around the Internet since the contagion first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last month.
Since then, it has spread to more than two dozen countries and infected tens of thousands, mostly within mainland China.
Health experts generally agree that masks are useful if you have respiratory symptoms or are caring for patients.
But the World Health Organisation's (WHO) own Thailand office tweeted a graphic on Feb 4 stating that masks are "not needed for general public who do not have respiratory symptoms".
The WHO has advised people to wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their face.