Tourist police crack down on ‘zero-dollar’ scams

Over the past two weeks the Tourist Police Division (TPD) has led heavy crackdowns on criminal gangs operating so-called “zero-dollar” tour scams. The practice is hurting the country’s tourism industry as it leaves little or no income for bona fide operators, critics say.

Tourist Police Crack Down On 'zero-dollar' Scams

Under the ‘zero-dollar’ tour model, Chinese pay in advance for lodging, meals and tours, but in truth they are pressured to buy, buy and buy from non-approved merchants throughout their stay. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

After the crackdowns, tourist police are now confident they will be able to wipe out the gangs behind the racket before the month is out. Police are tracking the money trail of the gangs and prosecuting them.

The scam explains why a surge in Chinese tourist arrivals is not generating as much revenue as it should. TPD commander Surachet Hakphal said Chinese tourists now dominate the tourism sector.

Tourist Police Crack Down On 'zero-dollar' Scams

Pol Maj Gen Surachet: ‘State loses big revenue’

Previously most tourists came from Europe, the US and Japan. The number of Chinese tourists has jumped almost 10-fold in the past decade by 7.1 million, thanks to China’s economic boom and strong tourism promotion drives.

Despite the large number of arrivals by Chinese tourists, the country is not getting the expected economic benefits as a great deal of tourism income ends up in the hands of zero-dollar tour operators. The TPD chief said Chinese tourists fooled into the scam come to Thailand paying nothing more than the air fare. They are promised free accommodation, food and local tours. Chinese operators of zero-dollar tour services collude with Thais to trick Chinese tourists into paying for goods or extra tour services at rates much higher than usual.

The tourists are also overcharged for trips to clubs offering lewd entertainment, and jewellery shops selling items at inflated prices. When tourists refuse to accept the additional services touted by the tour guides, various tactics are used to pressure them into buying the products and services. Those who still insist on not taking the additional offers usually end up being abandoned by the “tour guides” in the middle of the trip.

Chinese tourists in zero-dollar tours pay a lot more money locally. However, the shops they spend their money in are operated by proxies of Chinese tour gangs who take that money and send it back to China. The gangs also avoid paying taxes here. In the past two weeks, many Chinese tour companies have been raided and suspects detained. One such company was Fu An Travel Co in Bangkok’s Ratchathewi district. Police obtained information that Chinese nationals posing as Thais used fake Thai ID cards to operate the tour guide business, Pol Maj Gen Surachet said.

The ID card of Somkiat Khongcharoen, who died nine years ago, was used to register the business with the help of Thais. Three Thai suspects arrested in the raid were identified as Thawal Chaemchok, 59, who was named as the managing director of the firm; Phuwadol Sukcharoen, 38; and Thanakrit Rinrat, 44. Mr Phuwadol and Mr Thanakrit worked as tourist guides for the company. They were charged initially with document forgery.

Police later raided more companies, including Royal Gems International Co, Bangkok Handicraft Centre Co, Royal Thai Herb Co, OA Co and Royal Paradise Co. These companies are in Lat Krabang district of Bangkok. They offered services and products ranging from car hire to jewellery and herbal products.

Tourist Police Crack Down On 'zero-dollar' Scams

Tourist police commander Surachet Hakpan, centre, led a raid last Friday to seize the tour buses of OA Transport Co in Lat Krabang district of Bangkok. (Photo courtesy Tourist Police)

One of the companies owns more than 7,000 rental cars. A preliminary investigation jointly conducted by the Department of Special Investigation, the Revenue Department, the Anti-Money Laundering Office, the Department of Tourism and the Department of Business Development showed the five companies have altogether 10 billion baht in cash flow and assets.

They were found to be connected to Fu An Co and another firm, Xiang Yuan Co, which was raided earlier on suspicion of operating zero-dollar tours. Police believe another travel company, Lian Tai Travel in Saphan Sung district of Bangkok, may also be linked to Fu An Co and Xiang Yuan Co, he said. Lian Tai Travel is registered as operated by a Chinese man and woman.

Police found six employees of the firm have no work permit.

Police are also investigating suspicious share transfers of the company.

“These businesses have been costing the nation a substantial loss in revenue,” Pol Maj Gen Surachet said.

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Tourist arrivals to Cambodia to fall this year

Tourist Arrivals To Cambodia To Fall This Year

A woman rests on her tricycle as a tourist walks past at the Basac River bank in Phnom Penh on Aug 16, 2016. (Reuters photo)

PHNOM PHEN – International tourist arrivals are expected to fall this year due to the global economic slowdown and this will have a knock-on effect in slowing down growth in the services sector, according to a Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance report.

The growth of the number of international tourist arrivals further slowed down to 2.6% in the first half of 2016, compared to 4.6% in the same period of 2015 and earnings from the tourism sector could possibly be lower given the expected decrease in high-spending tourists from Western Europe and Russia, the Khmer Times1 on Thursday quoted the Ministry of Economy and Finance report entitled Cambodia Macroeconomic Monitor Mid-Year Assessment 2016 as saying. The report, released on Tuesday, pointed out that due to a fall in tourist arrivals from affluent countries because of the global economic slowdown, the services sector will only grow 6.7% this year ‘ compared to 7.1% last year.

Annual growth in the services, after peaking at 8.7% in 2014, has been on a downward path, and this trend is likely to continue in 2016. Growth in the services sector fell from 8.7% in 2014 to 7.1% in 2015, read the report. According to the ministry report, the slowdown was across the board in all subsectors, except in transport and communications.

The mid-year assessment report also cited Myanmar as the country posing strong competition to Cambodia s tourism sector and said the underinvestment in the country s tourism-related infrastructure and other support services, together with a lack of skilled human resources in the hotels and hospitality industry, further worsened prospects for the sector. Kong Sophearak, director of the statistics department at the Ministry of Tourism, agreed that there was a slowdown in tourist arrivals for the first half of the year.

The slowdown in tourist arrivals will affect the services sector, especially hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap ‘ since it is a main tourist destination with Angkor Wat as the centre of attraction, said Sophearak. Nuon Teviphea, general manager of Aspara Angkor Hotel, told the Khmer Times that his hotel is currently seeing low occupancy rates, and he expected this to continue until the end of the year.

We are losing customers because they prefer to travel to Myanmar and Vietnam, he said.

Teviphea said neighbouring countries offered better tour packages compared to Cambodia, which only focuses on temple tours around Angkor Wat. Thourn Sinan, chairman of the Cambodian chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, told the Khmer Times that although the drop in tourist arrivals could affect the hotels and hospitality sector, the industry was strong enough to cope.

This is not a surprise to me. Last year, we had a slowdown in tourist arrivals but we managed to survive. So we expect to survive again this year.

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Search goes on for missing tourist in Mae Sai cave

Search Goes On For Missing Tourist In Mae Sai Cave

Despite days of searching by several groups, there is no answer to the disappearance of a tourist described as being of Asian descent who is reported missing in a deep cave in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district on Aug 12. (Photo by Chinpat Chaimon)

CHIANG RAI The continued search for an Asian man thought to be missing in a deep cave in Mae Sai forest since Aug 12 has still failed to turn up any sign of him, and rescuers believe he could be dead as they can “smell a decomposing body . The latest search of Saithong cave was carried out by village defence team members and residents of Moo 9 village in Pong Pha subdistrict, the closest community to the cave. It came after park officials ordered the search suspended on Saturday to wait for police to look for the missing tourist in other places in Mae Sai. Village defence chief Boonrang Chomphupor, who led the search, told Daily News Online, ground searchers and divers had so far failed to locate the missing tourist but thought the man was dead because they could smell an odour like that of a decomposing body at the cave s mouth.

He said part of the cave in that area was flooded with about two metres of water after heavy rainfall, which impeded the search. Mr Boonrang said the tourist s body could have been washed along to the cave s mouth by floodwater, given the foul smell that filled the air in the area. Because of the water, his team will survey other routes and discuss new plans before resuming the search, despite park officials suspending their search, he said. Souvenir vendors near the cave alerted park officials that a foreign tourist, aged 50-60 and believed to be either Chinese or Japanese, entered the cave on Aug 12 and had not come out.

The man, who speaks nominal Thai, had parked his bicycle under a tree near a food stall and asked vendors to look after it as he was going into the cave to meditate for a few days. Get full Bangkok Post printed newspaper experience on your digital devices with Bangkok Post e-newspaper1. Try it out, it’s totally free for 7 days.


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