By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A boat disaster near Thailand's Phuket Island that killed 47 Chinese last month is significantly cutting arrival numbers from China, though the Thai tourism industry is hopeful the decline will be stemmed by late this year.
The July 5 capsizing of the Phoenix was Thailand's worst tourist-related disaster in years. China is Thailand's biggest source of visitors, and last year accounted for nearly one-third of the record 35.38 million arrivals.
During July, Chinese arrivals fell 0.9 percent from a year earlier, the first drop since the start of 2017, when the Thai government was cracking down on cheap tour packages from China.
The Thai tourism ministry expects a bigger decline of 14.3 percent for August.
And the ministry cut its target for Chinese arrivals in July-December by 669,000, or 11.5 percent, to 5.15 million.
Virat Chatturaputpitak, vice president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said he expects numbers to recover during China's "Golden Week" holiday in October, when many citizens travel en masse.
"They'll return in October," he said.
For sure, the boat deaths have cut Chinese arrivals in Phuket, a popular island resort.
"This is the lowest point in my 20 years working with the Chinese," said Apicharn Pasomsap, an airport transfer operator who caters to Chinese tour groups.
"We're all waiting around for clients that don't arrive."
The number of hotel rooms in Phuket taken by Chinese in July and August has been 30 percent lower than usual, according to the Thai Hotels Association.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand said six Chinese airlines have cancelled a total of 19 flights to Phuket, or about 6 percent of weekly arrivals.
AVOIDING THE WATER
Zhou Min, 33, an English teacher from China's Yunan province, still visited Phuket for two days recently, but didn't go on the water.
"My husband didn't allow me to go out to the sea because the accident influenced us and we were a little scared," she said.
After the disaster, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed Chinese tour operators for disregarding Thai safety regulations, prompting a backlash from Chinese netizens. He later apologised.
In July, China issued statements reminding outbound tourists to guard against safety risks, with mentions of the Phuket incident.
Local Thai authorities say they have increased safety checks on boats.
Yuthasak Supasorn, Tourism Authority of Thailand governor, told Reuters the boat disaster "has affected our image and what's most important now is we have to focus on restoring tourist confidence and our safety image."
(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in BANGKOK and Brenda Goh and Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Richard Borsuk)