Saturday, March 29, 2008

Help is just a whistle away

Thai Takes

NEXT time when you hear someone whistling on an isolated beach in Thailand don’t immediately assume it is a wolf call.

It might be a female tourist desperately in need help.

Two days after the shocking murder of a Swedish woman in the island of Phuket on March 15, Thai Tourism Ministry distributed safety whistles – shaped like the symbol commonly used to designate women (a circle above a cross) – to female tourists as part of its campaign to increase security.

It is debatable whether a whistle could have saved 27-year-old Swedish tourist Hanna Charlotta Backlund, who was stabbed to death in broad daylight while walking alone at Mai Khao, a secluded beach on the northern tip of Phuket.

Backlund’s murder is one of the recent killings of foreigners visiting Thailand that grabbed international media attention.

The list includes:

> Chetn Dadhwal, a 24-year-old Indian, who was trying to stop a fight during a Full Moon party at Koh Phangan on March 22;

> A 23-year-old Japanese woman, Tomoko Kawashita, who was murdered in Sukhothai Historical Park during the Loy Krathong water festival during an attempted robbery on Nov 25 last year; and

> Russians Tatiana Tsimfer, 20, and Liubov Svikova, 25, who were shot dead while they were sitting in beach chairs on Pattaya’s Jomtien Beach on Feb 25 last year.

The murders, according to the Bangkok Post, “come as a wake-up call for the Thai authorities, who seem to show no concern about the shortage of investment in the tourism industry or the political will to improve the safety of tourists”.

Quoting tourism experts, the newspaper reported that people only travelled to destinations that they feel safe in.

“Thailand owed much of its reputation as the region’s tourist hub to its safety record,” it said on Sunday.

The tourism industry generates the largest amount of foreign exchange for Thailand, raking up more than 500 billion baht (RM51.5bil) last year and accounting to about 6% of its gross domestic product. Last year, Amazing Thailand attracted 14 million visitors.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects the number of arrival to increase, forecasting this year’s income to be 800 billion baht (RM82.4bil).

Have the killings put a dent in Thailand’s tourist arrivals?

“A little bit,” says Jim Pollard, an Australian, who is in charge of the expatriate page in Daily Xpress, a Thai English-language tabloid.

“But not to a crisis point.”

“Fortunately, the police managed to quickly get the fellow who murdered (Backlund). That probably limited the damage (to the Thai tourism industry),” he said.

On March 19, after a three-day manhunt police arrested a 31-year-old Thai labourer Akaradech Tangae, who confessed that he tried to rape Backlund.

“But she resisted and I had to kill her,” he told the police.

Police described Akaradech as a peeping Tom who “loves to bring friends to this remote and quiet beach to look at naked tourists swimming or sunbathing.”

Asked whether there has been a surge in the number of foreigners killed in the country, Pollard, who has been living in Thailand for nine years, says: “Frankly those things happen here off and on, and it is not unusual.

“The murder of a pretty, young girl (Backlund) in Phuket in broad daylight is unusual. But many deaths of foreigners in Thailand do not get international coverage.”

With that explanation, the expatriate added: “I’m off to do a story on a Finnish man who was killed by his Thai minor wife in Pattaya.”

According to Pollard, one of Thailand’s most notorious tourist murders is the strangling to death of 24-year-old British backpacker Kirsty Sara Jones in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai in 2000.

The case is still unsolved even though it was reopened several times.

Included with the Thai Tourism Police-issued whistles are safety pamphlets warning female sunbathers not to wear revealing swimsuits.

“Many tourists, particularly those from Europe, come here to enjoy the beaches. They tend to choose a quiet spot away from other people, take off the bikini and sunbathe. That’s when the attackers strike,” Choochart Suwannakom, commander of the national Tourist Police, told the Bangkok Post.

Many disagree that wearing skimpy swimsuit attracts rapist attack.

But just to be on the safe side, when you visit Thailand perhaps you should pack a whistle together with your bikini.

(Published in The Star on March 29, 2008)