Will Thailand’s tourist courts be effective?By Casey Hynes Sep 06, 2013 11:51AM UTC
Thailand’s first tourist court convened in Pattaya this week, part of an attempt by the government to bolster the tourism industry and show some semblance of justice for visitors who feel they have been wronged while traveling in the Kingdom.
The Pattaya court will be open from 4.30pm-8.30pm and will address tourist complaints about services and treatment in the holiday destination. The Pattaya court is a pilot project and is expected to be replicated in other major tourist districts, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Samui, and Krabi. The Pattaya Mail reported that the court was founded as a cooperative effort between the Tourism and Sport Ministry, the Office of Courts of Justice, Attorney General’s Office and the National Police Bureau.
Whether the courts will have any real influence on tourists’ experience in Thailand remains to be seen. In theory, the move indicates that the government is taking seriously the plight of visitors who find themselves on the losing end of scams, are robbed or assaulted or otherwise experience poor treatment while on holiday. The courts are meant to be equipped to deal with customer service disputes, which can theoretically be easily mediated. More serious offenses will be handed on to regular courts, and could take significantly longer for the offended party to see action.
Pattaya is an interesting choice of location for testing the new tourist court system, considering the often bizarre and occasionally nefarious news coming out of there. The beach resort has developed a reputation for being a den of sex, drugs, partying and crime, despite government efforts to brand it a family-friendly destination.
Pattaya is also notorious for money-making schemes such as the jet ski scam. Tourists will rent jet skis and upon return be charged exorbitant fees for “damage” done to the vehicle. One such case that attracted media attention in June involved two Indian men who rented jet skis for 150 baht for 30 minutes, and were told they owed US$2000 in damages. They were intimidated by 5-6 jet ski operators, according to Pattaya One, though they eventually negotiated the cost down to $1400.
(READ MORE: Is Thailand still safe for foreigners?)
Such scams are not limited to jet skis in Pattaya. In late August, a diplomatic quarrel erupted when Australian Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham intervened on behalf of an Australian man who had rented a jet ski and was being charged 40,000 baht (US$1,240) in damages. That row turned particularly ugly when Cunningham received this seemingly threatening text message from a Thai official with whom he was dealing in the case: “[I]t is not wise to always say bad things about Phuket while you are still living and doing your business in this city.” An article on the case in Phuket News noted that Cunningham pointed out other oddities, including the local police department’s apparent close working relationship with the jet ski rental company. It was announced Monday that Mr Cunningham is stepping down from his position of Honorary Consul after eight year.
Cunningham is not the first to have pointed out this friendliness among the police and local companies, a relationship that is not problematic in and of itself, but certainly doesn’t seem to serve tourists when they are being scammed or have a complaint. One wonders exactly how effective tourist courts will be under these circumstances.
That jet ski clash came at an unfortunate time, just after Phuket Governor Maitree Intrusud encouraged better behavior among jet ski operators, referring to them as brand ambassadors, insisting on a cleaned-up appearance and friendlier attitude toward customers, and suggesting that they lower prices.
While most scams don’t end in an international showdown, the situation the Australian man who rented the jet ski faced is certainly not uncommon. Many tourists report similar issues when they return rented motorbikes, which is especially problematic when the company is holding their passports for collateral and refuses to return them until the cost of the “damages” is paid.
One common scam in Bangkok sees taxi drivers agreeing to take passengers to a particular destination, only to make unexpected stops the passengers have not agreed to at shops and factories selling jewels and souvenirs along the way, earning themselves a commission for each tourist they bring as potential buyers. And that is one of many.
Tourists are also robbed in drive-by motorbike crimes, in which a driver nabs a purse or bag off an unsuspecting person walking down the street, leaving them with little recourse. It is unclear how the tourist courts will handle these situations, when the victim may not even get a good look at the thief’s face or bike and never see them again.
The fact remains that most visitors do not have any issues in Thailand, a country of amazing beauty and rich culture. In addition, the behaviour of tourists here is often far from exemplary with many, especially in places like Pattaya, coming for the cheap booze and sex.
That said, reports of scams and violence against tourists are coming thick and fast, and Thailand certainly needs to clean up its act. If the tourist courts are run with integrity and actually do provide recourse and closure for those who find themselves in unfortunate situations, it could serve as a credibility-booster for the Thai tourism industry. But it would seem a change in culture will be needed if any real progress is to be made.
When this author was robbed in Koh Phangan on New Year’s Day, my Thai host informed me there was no use in going to the police. “There’s really no point,” he told me. “They won’t do anything.”
Here’s hoping the tourists courts change help change that.