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Rise in the dreaded ‘zero dollar’ scam tours on Phuket

If you’re a tourist from China, Russia or India, heading to Thailand, you might be seeing amazing deals that appear too good to be true. They are. Say hello to the return of the zero-dollar tours.

A zero-dollar tour offers tourists flight and accommodation prices at below their real price, but loads up the tour with unscheduled and hidden trips to shops who offer commissions (up to 50%) to the unsuspecting customers, at highly inflated prices, of course. These shops are often set up so all the profits go to the ‘owners’ in the home countries of the tourists, not to local Thais.

The shops that the tourists are dragged around to include gem and pearl stores, souvenir shops, ‘local’ food bazaars and often over-priced restaurants serving their home-country dishes.

The resurgence of zero-dollar tours is, again, severely impacting Thailand’s tourism industry by targeting tourists from China, Russia and India. According to Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents. The three countries are currently the most numerous tourists into the country.

Mr. Sisdivachr highlighted that foreign groups are operating tour companies illegally in Thailand, using Thai nominee companies to conceal their activities. The companies would have the required Thai national as a signatory but who doesn’t work, or have any involvement, in the company.

Originally prevalent among Chinese tourists, this scam now targets Russian and Indian visitors as well. Mr. Sisdivachr, who recently discussed the issue with PM Srettha Thavisin, describing the current situation as the worst he has seen in his career.

He told the PM that the zero-dollar tours are tarnishing Thailand’s image, presenting the country as a cheap and unsafe destination where tourists are pressured into unwanted purchases. Additionally, the local economy suffers as these illegal operators evade taxes and avoid using local products and services, completely bypassing the local tourist economy.

Mr. Sisdivachr called for collaboration between the government, the private sector, and Chinese officials to address this problem within a year. He says that merely arresting a few illegal operators is insufficient.

“The entire network must be dismantled, as each operator typically runs multiple businesses.”

Licensed Thai operators have adapted by focusing on incentive groups or leisure tourists rather than volume. However, the persistence of zero-dollar tours continues to undermine their efforts. Mr. Sisdivachr expressed hope that Atta, as part of the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, will soon meet with Tourism and Sports Minister Sermsak Pongpanit to discuss solutions.

“The longer this kind of business persists, the worse the Thai tourism industry will become.”

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