Government is committed to keeping the Phuket Sandbox scheme open despite the brutal murder of a 57-year-old Swiss civil servant this week. The Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has also announced a review of security for foreign tourists focusing on strengthening the tourist police through volunteers and the installation of more CCTV security services, saying the murder should never have happened.
As the Phuket Provincial Court, on Monday, extended the detention of confessed murder accused Teerawat Thothip while the investigation into his heinous crime last Tuesday continues to be pursued by police at Wichit Police Station on the island, the damage caused by the incident is being weighed up and the disturbing question it raises about the safety of tourists in Thailand, a question that will require concrete and unambiguous answers given the critical importance of the industry to the country.
The Thai Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has accepted that the murder of a 57-year-old Swiss tourist in Phuket on Tuesday last has caused damage to confidence in the Phuket Sandbox scheme.
The woman who died, Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, was a senior Swiss government official who was on the third week of her holiday in Thailand having booked into a third hotel days before her murder.
On Sunday, the police presented their findings on the incident after a local Thai man, Teerawat Thothip was brought before the court on charges including murder following his arrest on Saturday on foot of a warrant.
Only serious criminal incident on Phuket since the sandbox opened on July 1st to boost foreign tourism
It comes as questions are being raised about the safety of tourists in Thailand even as government officials pointed out that the murder on the holiday island last week was the first serious case of criminality linked with the scheme to boost tourism since it was launched on July 1st last.
Police on Saturday, led by National Police Commissioner General Suwat Jangyodsuk, announced that they had ‘wrapped’ up the case after 27-year-old Teerawat Thothip confessed three minutes into an interrogation by police officers.
He had been brought in for questioning after police recorded him riding his motorbike on CCTV making his way to Ao Yon waterfall, hours before the Swiss woman made her fateful trek to the secluded beauty spot.
Police and authorities responded well
The early result in the case, the dispatch by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha of General Suwat to Phuket and efforts to reach out to Swiss authorities have shown that the government regarded the matter as one of the utmost gravity from the outset.
On Friday, the honorary Swiss Consul on Phuket, Ms Andrea Kotas Tammathin, described the tragedy as a ‘sad’ one both for the family of Ms Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, the Swiss woman who was murdered and the people of Phuket.
Man arrested by police in Phuket. Officials recruit locals to make the island safe for foreign tourists
On Saturday, Yan Kethner, a Swiss Police Service representative working with the crack Royal Thai Police investigative team flown in on Friday, the same unit deployed for the Ko Tao murders in 2015, suggested that the case was ‘bad’ news for both countries but, at the same time, he expressed his confidence in the ability of Thai police being able to resolve the case.
Case revived memories of the Ko Tao murders in 2015 and is remarkably similar to the murder of a young German woman on Ko Si Chang in 2019
They did so within hours.
On Saturday, police arrested the 27-year-old unemployed former professional kickboxer Mr Teerawat with a prior history of drug use.
The case has echoes of the Ko Tao murders in 2015 when young UK woman Hannah Witheridge and fellow tourist David Miller were bludgeoned to death on the remote island in Surat Thani. Ms Witheridge was raped.
Thai police worked closely on that case with their counterparts from Scotland Yard. Two Myanmar men, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, were subsequently convicted in the case on Christmas Eve 2015.
Despite controversy over the case and allegations that the two migrant workers were scapegoats who subsequently retracted their forced confession, two Thai courts upheld the verdict based on DNA evidence.
A death sentence imposed on the men was subsequently commuted after a petition was submitted to the Thai King for mercy.
Death of 26-year-old Miriam Beelte on Ko Si Chang
An even more similar case arose in April 2019 when 26-year-old German tourist Miriam Beelte was raped and murdered by 24-year-old Thai man Ronnakorn Romruen on paradise island, Ko Si Chang after she went to visit another well-known tourist landmark on that island shortly after disembarking from a Chonburi ferry.
Mr Ronnakorn also had a drug habit and told police, at the time, that he was high on methamphetamine. He had purchased flowers for the German woman at a stall near the tourist site.
He subsequently attacked Ms Beelte and raped her after pursuing her up a steep flight of steps to a higher vantage point.
Murdered with repeated blows to the head
When the woman somehow managed to escape his clutches, he chased her back down causing her to fall and break a leg. The German was murdered with repeated blows to the head from a rock which the killer found nearby.
Her body was then moved and hidden in undergrowth in an attempt to conceal the crime which, as in the case of Ms Sauvain-Weisskopf, was subsequently discovered by a passerby and reported to the police.
The 24-year-old was handed down the death penalty three months later in July 2019 after the Criminal Court found his callous actions left no room for mercy.
International coverage of the murder worldwide and in Switzerland, a key tourist market for Thailand
The brutal murder of the Swiss woman has been covered extensively on foreign media and particularly in Switzerland which is a key tourist market of orgin for Thailand.
It is one of the richest countries in the world with an average salary of $67,000 ( ฿2.24 million) according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report from 2019.
In the last quarter of 2019, Switzerland sent 60,887 tourists to Thailand who, between them, spent over ฿4.5 billion.
Improving security for foreign tourists now a top priority insists Minister of Tourism after Phuket security summit in the aftermath of the murder
On Friday, the tourism minister, Mr Phiphat, called for a focus on improving security for foreign tourists and cooperation between security agencies including the Tourist Police, a division of the Royal Thai Police and provincial authorities.
Mr Phiphat acknowledged that there were not enough tourist police officers with a nationwide force of only 2,000 but called for strengthened policing and an expansion of efforts to recruit local volunteers.
A security summit convened by Mr Phiphat on Friday called for more CCTV surveillance of Phuket and other technologies to help improve security on the island.
There is also to be tightened screening of visitors to the island from the mainland.
Phuket Sandbox is still bringing in tourists but the damage has been caused to Thailand’s reputation
It comes as it has emerged that booking and arrivals for the Phuket sandbox scheme are ongoing with 2,403 arrivals in the opening 5 days of August bringing the total to 16,408 while there was also a reported pick-up for the languishing Samui Plus scheme which reported 190 bookings to date in addition to 257 visitors coming via the Phuket scheme.
Nevertheless, the minister was adamant that the death of the Swiss tourists would have repercussions for the tourism drive on the island.
‘This incident should not have happened. The sandbox scheme was starting to gather pace and many countries are keeping an eye on us,’ he said. ‘Every authority involved with the Phuket sandbox including the ministry has to share the responsibility.’
It is reported authorities are moving to close off tourist spots without appropriate video surveillance as was the case with the Ao Yon waterfall location which is difficult to access.
Too early to gauge the impact of the murder
The Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Yuthasak Supasorn, has said it’s too early to gauge what the impact of the murder will be as there is a two week lead-in time between bookings as people consider their options.
‘The incident has inevitably affected the sandbox’s image, but it is too soon to predict booking trends as tourists normally take a two-week lead time before taking trips,’ he explained.
He suggested the coronavirus situation and the achievement of effective herd immunity in Thailand was still a critical factor in determining the revival of Thailand’s tourism trade but emphasised that tourist safety is a top priority and factor influencing marketing efforts to attract foreign tourists to the kingdom.