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Violence, crime, pollution endanger Thailand’s allure

A guard watches over the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, March 23, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Two Canadian sisters die mysteriously in their rented bungalow on an idyllic Thai island, believed poisoned. Less than a week later, a 60-year-old Australian woman is stabbed to death in a botched robbery outside a luxury resort in Phuket.

Their deaths are the latest in a tumult of violence and intrigue to shake tourism in postcard-perfect Thailand, raising questions over whether it is squandering a prized asset by failing to protect travellers arriving in record numbers.

Other headlines are less dramatic but equally troubling: taxi driver crime groups, transvestite thieves, pollution, tourist brawls, traffic accidents, and, at airports, radar glitches, flight delays and long immigration queues.

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"The Tourism Authority of Thailand [TAT] think numbers are going up so people must like it here, but the problem is the quality of their visit has gone down," said Larry Cunningham, Australia's honorary consul to Phuket, an island described by travel guide Lonely Planet as "one of the world's most famous dream destinations."

The government has vowed to tackle "mafias" in tourist areas, while in February, Mr. Cunningham appealed to Phuket's government to stop water scooter operators who hire thugs and demand compensation for equipment damage renters did not cause.

Last year, a German television show broadcast footage of sewage pumped into the sea at the popular Kata and Karon beaches.

And a month ago, two sisters from Pohénégamook, Que. – Noémi Bélanger, 26, and her sister, Audrey, 20 – were found dead in their hotel room on Phi Phi Island. Circumstances appeared to point to the possibility of accidental poisoning.

The problems have so far failed to dull Thailand's centuries-old exotic allure. Its palm-fringed islands, gilded temples, spicy cuisine and racy nightlife helped draw 19 million visitors in 2011, generating $24.5-billion (U.S.) in revenue, up 31 per cent from 2010, tourism ministry data shows.

Even so, tourism's contribution to GDP has barely increased since 2003 and now hovers at 6 per cent. And with unspoiled destinations in neighbouring Myanmar opening up, Thailand is under pressure to decide what type of tourism it wants.

Phuket, for example, is at risk of sharing the same fate as another beach destination: Pattaya.

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A two-hour drive from Bangkok, Pattaya struggles to shake off a seedy reputation as Thailand's "Sin City" and with red-light entertainment, crime and unchecked development, it is synonymous with sleaze and spoiled beaches.

"We still think of tourism too much in a opportunistic, money making way," said opposition lawmaker and former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij. "We are putting the future of the industry at risk."

Tourist safety is another pressing issue. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) – a motor sport governing body – shows Thailand has the highest U.S. tourist road fatality rate in the developing world, after Honduras. Britain's Foreign Office warns of robberies and "vicious unprovoked attacks by gangs" on the party island, Koh Phangan.

The TAT says it does not have regulations to tackle crime head on and safety and environmental preservation issues are encumbered by local bureaucracy.

But with plans to promote Thailand to new markets in South America and Central Asia, there is little evidence of its tourism ambitions slowing down.

Thailand hopes to attract 21 million visitors this year, among them big spenders.

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"People who enjoy ecotourism tend to spend a lot of money and we are definitely targeting that type of tourist," said Chattan Khunjara Na Ayudhya, a public relations director at TAT.

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