Official figures flag up exotic Thailand as the most dangerous foreign country for Australian tourists. Insurers tell David Kernek about the risks awaiting gap-year and other travellers in the Asian kingdom.
Australia’s ambassador in Thailand bears no resemblance whatsoever to the fictional Aussie diplomat created by Barry Humphries – the grotesquely foul-mouthed but hilarious Sir Les Patterson who, in his sketches, bragged about his highly enjoyable visits to Bangkok’s ‘discreet’ massage parlours. In fact, James Wise is a softly-spoken career envoy clearly at the top of his game in the fine art of not offending his host country. So, it’s a measure of the concern Australia has about the risks facing tourists in Thailand that the topic was scheduled for inclusion in a video interview – made for the Canberra government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and posted on its website as part of its Our Ambassador series – given by Wise about his embassy’s work in what the Thai tourism industry calls the Land of Smiles. Having deplored the fact that the number of Australians studying at Thai universities is very low – “you don’t need the fingers of two hands to count them” – the conversation with Wise turned to the more than 850,000 Australians who visit Thailand every year, most of them as tourists with anything but uni courses on their minds. “These are enormous numbers from a country with a population of less than 23 million, and it means that Bangkok is our busiest consular post by far,” he said. “On any day of the year, we have between 180 and 210 active consular cases. That’s partly a reflection of the large number of travellers, but also partly a reflection of the various temptations and risks that can be associated with having a holiday in Thailand, especially among young people.”
Word to the wise
The various temptations and risks to which the ambassador referred so diplomatically played a part in making Thailand, according to statistics published recently by the Australian government’s foreign affairs and trade ministry, the most dangerous foreign country for Australians, with 430 deaths in the period from 2006 to 2011. Illness accounted for 163 of these deaths, accidents for 69 and natural causes were responsible for 66. In 132 cases, the cause of death is unknown or unlisted, which underlines concerns that police investigations and medical reports in Thailand can be less than meticulous, as did a New Zealand government statement last month (August) about Thai investigations into six deaths (five tourists and a Thai guide), and the illnesses of three other tourists in Chiang Mai in January and February this year. The report issued by the Thai authorities, says NZ’s foreign affairs ministry, “concludes that it is very likely that the cause of death in three cases, including that of a New Zealander, was exposure to some toxic chemical, pesticide or gas. According to the report, the investigation could not isolate the specific causative agent, or the manner in which the exposure took place.”
Shortly after the deaths – tourists from the United States, Britain and France were also victims – Chiang Mai’s governor said the fatalities were a coincidence, and that the province was safe for tourists. Thai authorities have announced a range of measures to reduce the risks to visitors to Chiang Mai and other provinces, including greater controls and monitoring of the use of cleaning agents and bug sprays used in hotels and markets. Tourists who want to know what those measures are, however, are directed to a Thai government website that provides no English language translations.
In response … we have introduced an additional premium of between AU$15 and AU$25 for travellers intending to ride motorcycles, scooters or mopeds on holiday
The statistics for UK visitors – which number more than 800,000 annually – are as disturbing as those compiled by the Australians. In just one year – the 12 months from April 2011 to March 2012 – there were 296 deaths and 217 hospitalisations. UK consular staff in Thailand handled 978 assistance cases in the year to March 2012, which included 204 arrests.
New Zealand’s Southern Cross Insurance, which has an ‘Outbacker’ policy especially designed for gap-year and adventure travellers under 40, is not prepared to name Thailand as an unusually high-risk holiday destination, as it says it does not store country-specific claims data. “Thailand does have some issues which can make it higher risk, such as security in some parts of the country,” says Craig Morrison, CEO at Southern Cross Travel Insurance. “However, unexpected events such as accidents or crime can happen in any country and to anyone.”
Cover-More, one of Australia’s major travel insurers with more than 1.6 million policyholders, and its sister company Travelsure New Zealand, do have country-specific claims data and are willing to mark Thailand out as ‘one of the most popular yet potentially hazardous holiday destinations for Australian travellers’, according to their own figures and those from the Australian government. Zachary Brookes, group marketing and strategy manager, says Thailand remains a popular destination for Australian and NZ tourists because of its proximity, affordability and cultural charm.
But approximately ten per cent of all Cover-More and Travelsure NZ claims in 2011-12 originated there. “We paid almost AU$5 million in travel insurance claims originating from Thailand, with 41 per cent relating to medical care and 30 per cent to stolen and lost luggage,” says Brookes. “And we managed more than 2,200 medical assistance cases in Thailand. One extreme example was the case of a 58-year-old who contracted septicaemia and had to be evacuated by air ambulance to Australia. The cost was more than AU$250,000. Another involved a 23-year-old who contracted pneumonia. Hospital and medical expenses took the claim to more than AU$77,000.”
He highlights road accidents as a major concern. “Motor vehicle accidents are common, too common. There are an alarming number of motor vehicle and motorcycle accidents involving travellers in Thailand and Asia generally. In Thailand alone, more than five per cent of total claims involve motorcycles, scooters or mopeds. It’s a combination of different road rules and traffic conditions and inexperienced and/or unlicensed drivers taking unnecessary risks.” A case in January this year involved an AU$62,000 claim for treating serious leg injuries, and another for the additional expenses of a 39-year-old Australian who was hit by a car.
“In response,” Mr Brookes told ITIJ, “we have introduced an additional premium of between AU$15 and AU$25 for travellers intending to ride motorcycles, scooters or mopeds on holiday. It figures prominently on enrolment forms and purchase paths, and it’s intended as a warning for travellers, especially younger ones, of the inherent danger of jumping on a scooter or moped in road conditions which could be decidedly different to what they are used to in Australia.” In the UK, Direct Line, too, has country-specific claims data. “Thailand is the single country in that region of south-east Asia from which we get the majority of claims,” says the company’s head of travel insurance, Tom Bishop. “Our claims figures for Vietnam are creeping up steadily, but volumes there are relatively low compared with Thailand, which is still by far the honeypot for tourists.”
He continued: “Based on our figures, Thailand is the danger hotspot in that region of Asia, just because of the profile of the people it tends to attract, and the fact that medical facilities are patchy in certain resorts away from Bangkok. It’s the culture there … places such as Koh Samui and Phuket have long been established as stop-off points on the world’s gap-year trail, and then you’ve got the slightly seedier parts that attract a certain profile of clientele.” Direct Line has upwards of 150 medical emergency claims, both in-patient and out-patient, that are handled by its assistance team in Thailand annually, and a total of 1,000 to 1,500 claims across all categories – medical, baggage, delays, cancellations, curtailments – each year.
Based on our figures, Thailand is the danger hotspot in that region of Asia, just because of the profile of the people it tends to attract, and the fact that medical facilities are patchy in certain resorts away from Bangkok
Sex tourists in Thailand now form a recognisable category of claimants for Direct Line – repeat visitors in the 40-to-60 age group to resorts such as Pattaya who make insurance claims two or three times in two or three years, says Mr Bishop. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reports that of the country’s 19.1 million tourist arrivals in 2011, 60 per cent were repeat visitors. “But the main issue we have in Thailand,” says Bishop, “is gap-year travellers who are out on an adventure, and generally it’s accidental injury – we see an awful lot of moped injuries, when people are hiring a vehicle, but they’re not hiring a helmet. The law is fairly lax on that in Thailand. Those will be the more serious trauma cases in places such as Pattaya, Koh Samui and Phuket.” Most of the moped accidents happen at night. Roads in rural areas away from resort centres are unlit and badly pockmarked, people don’t know what they should be looking out for, and other vehicles are a hazard. Bishop agrees that getting the detailed reports needed for claims settlement can be problematic. “We like to have police reports to find out what’s actually happened in, for example, an accident, but they can be quite difficult for our local agent to track down. The police are generally relatively helpful, but you’ll get a very vanilla report that doesn’t give a great deal away unless people have actually witnessed what’s happened. That makes it difficult to make any recovery if there’s a third party involved.”
Thailand’s road death toll in the ten years from 2000 to 2010 was 124,855, a yearly average of more than 12,000 fatalities in traffic accidents, and motorbikes account for 70 per cent of them. There are on average 3,000 road accident deaths a year in the UK. The US State Department says Thailand’s roads are the second most lethal (after Honduras) on the planet. Many of the motorcycles and mopeds for hire in beach resorts are unregistered and cannot be used legally on public roads. Driving quad bikes on public roads is illegal, but they can be found for hire at roadside pitches. There is also a problem with cars, coaches and mini-buses, the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) says. Many accidents are due to poor application of vehicle and driver safety standards. Three British travellers were killed in an accident involving overnight bus travel in June last year. Powerful rip tides make swimming at coastal resorts as perilous as driving. “During the monsoon season from May through October,” warns the US State Department, “drowning is the leading cause of death for tourists visiting Phuket.” Some, but not all, beaches have warning flags to indicate the degree of risk. The death by drowning of a British tourist in Patong in July was the eighth on Phuket’s west coast beaches since May. Other victims were tourists from China, the United States, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia and France. Swimmers are routinely seen in the water, having ignored red warning flags.
There’s no lack of pre-holiday information about all of the risks in Thailand. Travellers’ blogs and travel websites produced by the US, Australian, New Zealand and UK governments are packed with warnings – about everything from sex crimes and rip tides to muggings and money scams – and tips on how to stay safe in Thailand. The Australian government’s Smart Traveller website has an entire section about Full Moon parties at coastal resorts. Described as the world’s biggest, longest and loudest thrashes, the Koh Phangan parties attract 5,000 to 10,000 people at each event. “Large numbers of Australians,” it warns, “get into trouble overseas as a direct result of partying too hard and forgetting about simple safety precautions. Parties and festivals like the Full Moon Parties in Koh Phangan … can be fun experiences, but drinking too much or taking drugs can put you in difficult and often dangerous situations far from home. Australians have had their drinks spiked, their documents stolen, been assaulted, injured, arrested, imprisoned and even killed.” It features case histories of robberies and sexual assaults, and graphic after-party pictures of bodies strewn on beaches.
In 2010, four young Australian women were among dozens of Full Moon party-goers injured when two tourist boats collided off Koh Samui. They were repatriated by Cover-More. “We do urge people to read our travel advice and take it seriously, and also very importantly, to take out travel insurance,” says Australia’s ambassador in Bangkok. And there’s the problem: you can dish out shedloads of travel warnings and tips, but you can’t make people read them … or take them seriously – and that means that travel insurance, where it is taken out, can be rendered invalid if the policyholder has acted in contradiction of the policy wording.
“The travel insurance industry is pro-active in helping consumers to understand the importance of travel insurance,” says Southern Cross’s Craig Morrison. “Insurers release information regularly to highlight travel-related issues, as does the Insurance Council of New Zealand, and New Zealanders who fall into difficulty overseas receive widespread coverage from local and national media. There was a very highprofile case in July of a young New Zealander, living in Australia, who racked up enormous medical bills whilst on holiday in Thailand after failing to understand that his Australian travel insurance policy did not provide cover for scooter travel.” Southern Cross says its policies make it clear that claims arising directly or indirectly from the use of non-prescription drugs or excessive alcohol, participation in gambling, hitchhiking and riding a scooter without a helmet are excluded. “Ongoing education is helpful,” says Morrison, “but there will always be a certain type of personality you will never reach – the person who thinks ‘it won’t happen to me’. Hopefully, they won’t have to learn the hard way.”
The US State Department says Thailand’s roads are the second most lethal (after Honduras) on the planet
Direct Line’s Tom Bishop agrees there is no pre-holiday shortage of information. “We are closely affiliated with the FCO’s Know Before You Go campaign. It has a very comprehensive breakdown of the different parts of Thailand, what you can expect in each of them, and what the varying crime and medical risks might be. The information is out there; it’s just a question of whether or not people seek it out before they go. You’ll get some people going on a gap year who will get the travel guides and research the areas quite thoroughly, and there’ll be others who prefer to wing it because it’s all part of the adventure.” Thailand’s tourism authority says that ‘almost all’ of its 19 million-plus tourists last year had holidays that were incident-free, and refers – accurately – to the US State Department travel advisory that rates the ‘crime threat in Bangkok and other Thai cities lower than that in many US cities’, with violent crimes against foreigners ‘relatively rare’. But TAT’s tips for travellers, unsurprisingly, omits the following warning in the US advisory: “However, there has been a recent upsurge in violent crime against tourists, including the murder of several independent travellers on the southernislands of Phuket and Koh Samui.”
TAT boasts that Phuket’s gateway status strengthens its ranking as one of Asia’s ‘most attractive island destinations capable of attracting the world’s most discerning travellers’. Whether that’s true or not depends on your notion of a discerning tourist. The tourist authority certainly wants to see an upgrade in its visitor profile and to that end is encouraging investment in medical, spa and golf tourism – niche sectors capable, perhaps, of attracting discerning, highspending Chinese visitors who might just be better behaved and more self-disciplined than the carefree Western variety.