In a disheartening twist, a 14-year-old shooter wielding a modified blank gun unleashed terror in Bangkok’s iconic Siam Paragon mall on Tuesday. Two innocent lives were lost, including a 34-year-old Chinese mother of five-year-old twin girls, and a Burmese migrant worker. Among the five injured was also another Chinese tourist.
This incident has cast a long shadow over Thai tourism efforts, especially during the highly-anticipated Chinese Golden Week holiday from September 29 to October 6, and sent Thai officials scrambling to mend diplomatic ties and reassure the world about traveller safety.
The Chinese woman slain had entered Thailand on September 27, just two days after the Thai government launched the five-month Chinese visa waiver ahead of Golden Week and boosted flights to Chinese cities – all in an effort to try to propel Chinese tourism towards pre-pandemic levels.
The power of movies and social media
The rapid spread of the incident on Chinese social media platforms underscores the interwoven relationship between online discourse and tourism.
Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of Association of Thai Travel Agents and owner of inbound supplier Golden Discovery Express, told TTG Asia: “Although the new government has tried to sell a positive image of Thailand, this incident has reinforced existing fears about safety in Thailand.
“In recent times, Thailand has been grappling with Chinese social media perceptions. Two films, No More Bets and Lost in the Stars, have considerably influenced the IndoChinese tourism perception.”
The rampant spread of fake news about Thailand among Chinese netizens is also a culprit, to the point that tourism stakeholders recently pleaded with Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin to address the issue with the Chinese government.
Thailand’s association with Chinese entertainment isn’t new; in 2012, a Chinese movie called Lost in Thailand about three Chinese men travelling to Thailand went viral, boosting tourist numbers and helping to propel Chinese tourism over the following years towards its peak of nearly 11 million visitors in 2019.
Yet, this time, viral posts on platforms like Weibo, from the shooting victim’s extended family and tourists recounting the incident in the mall, have cast a pall over the country’s tourism aspirations.
Local news site The Thaiger found that thousands of Chinese users on Weibo expressed their criticism of the shooting event, with some declaring they would never travel to Thailand in the future.
Questions about safety and security
Following the shooting, a loud chorus has arisen questioning the efficacy of security measures in Thai malls, calling for more detailed scans, better alert systems, and quicker response times from local authorities and medics.
Proposed solutions like cell broadcasting alert systems, which offer timely warnings, have gained traction – but language barriers for tourists also need to be considered.
Social media is also abuzz with discussion about Thailand’s gun control laws after the incident. Remarkably, the country’s gun laws have not seen an update in over seven decades. Thailand, with approximately 10 million guns circulating, stands out for its high ownership rates in the region. Although large-scale shooting incidents remain rare, the recent event is the third significant attack in recent years.
Sretta has extended apologies to the Chinese diplomat while reaffirming the commitment to traveller safety. Additionally, the Siam Paragon mall has vowed to support the victims’ families and bear all medical expenses, also setting up a one-week pop-up psych ward on its M-floor to support staff and visitors.
However, the industry is experiencing blow upon blow. The Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT) reports the tourism confidence index in Thailand has already seen a sharp decline, from 91 in 2019 to a dismal 69 in 3Q2023 due to weak economic conditions domestically and globally.
The road to recovery seems challenging, but as Chairattananon optimistically noted: “In a few weeks, with the Thai government’s reinforced security measures, visitors might regain their confidence.”
He cited improved security measures from the Thai government – including Thai police and immigration – as being instrumental to regaining visitor confidence, such as setting up a command centre for quicker response times, using technology to keep tourists informed during emergencies via online and offline channels, and boosting the country’s image by creating a Thai volunteer force that will support any tourists in the vicinity during a crisis.