A Tourist Tragedy in Thailand

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Rescue workers in Phuket, Thailand, survey the site of a plane crash, September 16, 2007.

It's currently low season on the Thai resort island of Phuket — not that you'd know it from the packed planes ferrying foreign tourists to this famous sun-and-surf destination. On Sunday afternoon, tragedy struck holidaymakers when a Bangkok-Phuket flight operated by discount airliner One-Two-GO crash-landed, skidded off the runway and burst into flames. Of the 130 people on board, at least 88 have died, according to the Thai Ministry of Public Health. (Seventy-nine of the passengers were foreigners, while 44 were Thai, according to local airport authorities.)

As is usual at this time of year in Thailand, monsoons were drenching both Bangkok and Phuket, and a storm cluster had apparently whipped up heavy winds at the Phuket runway. But weather reports issued at the time of the crash did not mention a severe storm system, according to local Thai reports. It is still unclear whether the inclement weather was the cause of the accident, but investigators have recovered the so-called black box flight-data recorders to try to ascertain what happened.

The fiery crash caps a turbulent 12 months for Thailand, which depends heavily on tourist income for its economy, attracting more than 12 million foreign visitors a year. Last September, a military junta seized power from the democratically elected Prime Minister and installed martial law — undercutting Thailand's image as the "Land of Smiles." On New Year's Eve, a series of still unexplained bombings in Bangkok further spooked foreign tourists. Meanwhile, violence in the country's largely Muslim south has only increased since the military takeover, despite coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin being a minority Muslim in this predominantly Buddhist country. Complicating matters further, junta-appointed technocrats unveiled economic policies that discouraged badly needed foreign investment. Although tourist numbers have largely rebounded this summer, a deadly airplane disaster could further crimp the Thai economy. Phuket may be particularly vulnerable; the resort destination is only just recovering from the devastating 2004 tsunami that killed thousands of people on and around the island.

Southeast Asia has become increasingly dependent on tourism revenue, and budget airlines have proliferated across the region over the past few years. But the low prices and hassle-free Internet booking may be coming at a deadly price. In a region generally known for excellent safety records — carriers from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are among the world's top-rated airlines — the low-cost carriers have racked up some worrisome statistics. One-Two-GO, the airliner involved in Sunday's crash, is based in Bangkok and started flying in December 2003. Its international arm is known as Orient Thai. A flight operated by that carrier flew perilously close to Japanese landmark Tokyo Tower three years ago. South Korean authorities have also criticized Orient Thai for "substandard safety."

Budget airlines in Indonesia, meanwhile, have been involved in so many troubling incidents, including a series of fatal crashes, that this year the European Union took the unusual step of banning every single one of them from flying into Europe. Nevertheless, tourist numbers to Indonesia have only grown since then. A region that depends so dearly on welcoming foreign visitors can only hope that Sunday's Phuket tragedy will not induce others to cancel their tickets.