Thai tour operators charged over Chinese visitor scams

A group of Chinese tourists take a selfie next to the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand on Oct 3, 2016.
A group of Chinese tourists take a selfie next to the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand on Oct 3, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai prosecutors have charged a string of tour operators with ripping off Chinese tourists, police said on Thursday (Nov 24), as the kingdom cracks down on scams targeting its most lucrative visitors.

China sends more people to Thailand than any other nation and tourism remains one of the few bright spots in the kingdom's otherwise bleak economy.

But complaints have soared in recent years over dodgy tour guides and practices, particularly so-called "zero-dollar" scams.

Such schemes promise Chinese package tourists an impossibly cheap or free holiday only to pile on excessive charges once they arrive in Thailand.

Prosecutors this week charged 13 people from seven different Thai tour operators.

"They are charged with organised crime offences, joint money laundering and illegally running tourist operations without permission," deputy national police spokesman Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen told AFP.

Local media, citing Bangkok's Criminal Court, said the companies made as much as US$2.7 million (S$3.9 million) through the scams.

Court officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent years, China has played a major role in keeping Thailand's tourist boom rolling.

Tourism authorities say they are on course to receive a record 32 million visitors this year, up from 30 million last year.

Nearly one third will come from China with 9.1 million expected, a 14 per cent increase on the previous year.

Thailand's junta, which has moved closer to Beijing since seizing power in 2014, is desperate to avoid any tail-off in Chinese visitor numbers.

So far tourists from Thailand's giant regional neighbour have kept on coming despite some major setbacks.

Last year 20 people were killed, most of them ethnic Chinese tourists, when a bomb went off at a religious shrine in the centre of Bangkok.

Two ethnic Uighurs, a persecuted minority in China, are currently on trial over the attack.

The authorities are keen to stamp out scams, aware they can do just as much to damage tourism as bombs.

"These scandals not only impact the country's economy... it also impacts our reputation," Col Krissana added.

"In turn we expect to receive more quality tourists coming in, not just Chinese but other nationalities too."