BANGKOK, July 22 (Reuters) - 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 mafias, transvestite thieves, pollution, tourist brawls, traffic accidents, and at airports, radar glitches, flight delays and long immigration queues.
"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, Cunningham appealed to Phuket's government to stop jet-ski 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 popular Kata and Karon beaches.
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 776 billion baht ($24.5 billion) in revenue, up 31 percent from 2010, ministry data shows.
Even so, tourism's contribution to GDP has barely increased since 2003 and now hovers at 6 percent. 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.
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.
Some tourists say standards fell short of expectations.
"In general Thailand feels safe but tour guides and drivers are more aggressive," says Mattias Ljungqvist, 31, a Swede who first visited the country a decade ago.
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.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last month said the government's tourism policy would focus on generating 2 trillion baht in revenue within five years. The Ministry of Tourism and Sports plans to spend 2.6 billion baht on developing and promoting tourist attractions in 2013.
It hopes to attract 21 million visitors this year, among them big spenders.
"People who enjoy eco-tourism 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. (Editing by Jason Szep, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Ed Lane)
Near the holiday center of Krabi, the stunning Phra Nang beach is presided over by the massive limestone karst that stands in the shallow blue water just offshore. Because it is only accessible by boat, this bay stands out as one of Thailand's least crowded swimming spots. When not enjoying the gorgeous view, wander over and visit the Tham Phra Nang Nok or "Princess Cave," which local fisherman claim the cave houses, well, a sea princess. Makes sense. <strong>Where to stay</strong>: There is a large selection of resorts both cheap and expensive near the beach that offer easy transport and travel guides for exploring the Krabi islands. A good bet is the <a href="http://www.krabi-hotels.com/phrananginn/" target="_hplink">Phra Nang Inn</a>, which has an attached spa and rooms from $70. The only drawback is Ao nang is commercialized, so it make an excellent base for exploring but a poor "secluded getaway." <strong>Getting There</strong>: For those coming from the USA, book a flight from <a href="http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport</a> to Krabi Airport, then hop on a local shuttle bus to Ao Nang. The ride takes about two hours. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjvs/4528779911/" target="_hplink">plusgood</a>/Flickr
Ao Phang Nga Marine Park
Ao Phang Nga Marine Park stretches over 150 square miles, encompassing a crowd of karsts and not a few tiny, gem-like beaches. You'll need a boat to get in, but the trip--reminiscent of a voyage to Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay is more than worth it. Would-be spelunkers and SCUBA divers will also find themselves with option aplenty as toothy, stalactite filled caves and healthy reefs are common here. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Most of the non-camping options are on the mainland, where <a href="http://www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien/index.html" target="_hplink">Le Meridien Khao Lak</a> offers the most complete package for $150 plus. The crazy expensive option is the <a href="http://www.sixsenses.com/SixSensesYaoNoi/" target="_hplink">Six Senses Yao Noi</a>, the local offering of one of the world's great luxury hotel chains. (If you have to ask, it is too expensive.) Layered in bamboo, mosquito nettings and pressed sheets, this island paradise delivers the sort of pampering it is impossible to deserve. <strong>Getting There</strong>: Buses and Taxis service Ao Phang Nga from Krabi via Thailand's Highway 4. <a href="http://www.krabiairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Krabi's airport</a> hosts frequent flights to and from Bangkok and several other regional hubs. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/feserc/3214963854/" target="_hplink">feserc</a>/Flickr
Chaweng, Koh Samui
One of Thailand's most popular beaches, Chaweng is very big and very busy. Sunbathers will be offered drinks and foods by wandering vendors, providing vacationers with a perfect opportunity to become totally inanimate. For those that save their energy during the day, there is always plenty to do at night. The town is renowned for its bustling main strip. What visitors here call a Tuesday night, most people would call a bender. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: With its playful kindergarten meets pop art stylings, the <a href="http://www.akwaguesthouse.com/" target="_hplink">Akwa Guesthouse</a> offers sun seekers a playful and very cheap option for $25. The Anantara Lawana Resort and Spa, with its clear pool and shaded pavilions, offers a more traditionally lovely oasis for over $300. <strong>Getting There</strong>: Fly into <a href="http://www.samuiairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Koh Samui</a> and grab a taxi for the short ride south. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/14324493@N08/1452430688/" target="_hplink">royster00</a>/Flickr
The sand is soft, the beach is wide and the locals are friendly. The only complication here, other than finding a boat to bring you, is a total lack of good reasons to leave. For those that manage to pull themselves off the beach, Railay is also famous for rock climbing and there are day kayak tours and full-day boat and snorkeling trips to Koh Poda available. <strong>Where to stay</strong>: Visitors can stay in Krabi and head out to Railay for a day at the beaches and rock climbing, or choose from an excellent assortment of resorts including the <a href="http://www.railaybayresort.com/" target="_hplink"><a href="http://www.railayvillagekrabi.com/" target="_hplink">Railay Village Resort</a></a>, the <a href="http://www.krabisandsea.com/" target="_hplink">Sand Sea Resort</a> and the recently renovated <a href="http://www.railaybayresort.com/" target="_hplink">Railay Bay Resort</a> (from $120, 100 and $90 respectively). <strong>Getting There</strong>: Regular long tail boat service from Ao Nang and Krabi makes this area quite accessible for those who don't mind a brisk motorboat ride. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/argenberg/648596433/" target="_hplink">Argenberg</a>/Flickr
Haad Rin Beach, Koh Pha Ngan
This heavily trafficked half-moon bay is famous (read: infamous) for its full moon parties, when thousands of revelers descend on the beach to dance to house music and alter their states. The monthly party attracts mostly a younger crowd that unfortunately leaves garbage cairns to mark their path. Nonetheless, the beach is located near a beautiful headland and makes for a relaxing stop so long as long as there is some waxing or waning going on. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: There are tons of hostels of highly varying quality near the beach and hotels will fill up prior to the party so booking a room here can be a little tricky. A good bet is the<a href="http://www.bestwesternphanganburi.com/" target="_hplink"> Best Western Phanganburi Resort </a>($150), which is located in a quiet area and offers a quiet place to relax, or detox -- whatever you need. <strong>Getting There</strong>: There is a <a href="http://www.haadrin.info/ferry.php" target="_hplink">ferry service</a> between Haad Rin and Koh Samui as well as frequent pick-up taxis. Koh Samui has an airport that is serviced predominantly by flights from Bangkok and occasionally by flight from various cities in Malaysia. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/togawanderings/4842371697/" target="_hplink">ToGa Wanderings</a>/Flickr
Kata Beach, Phuket
This 12.5 mile gem provides an option for travelers eager to hit the beach, but less than thrilled about rubbing tribal-tattooed shoulders with the backpacker tribe that can dominate the southern island of Phuket. The nearby towns are not nightlife centers, but they have plenty of shopping for the whole family and even a <a href="http://www.dinopark.com/" target="_hplink">dinosaur-themed miniature golf course</a>. Where to Stay: The <a href="http://www.katagroup.com/katabeach/index.htm" target="_hplink">Kata Beach Resort and Spa</a> offers all the amenities of a Club Med, in a shiny gold-leafed package starting at $180 while the <a href="http://www.sugarpalmgrand.com/" target="_hplink">Sugar Palm Grand</a> nearby offers clean, modern lines in contrast to the verdant shore for a little less, $60 and above. Getting There: Flights from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore regularly land at <a href="http://www.phuketairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Phuket's international airport</a>. Take a taxi to the beach. Photos: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/edwin11/5730364074/" target="_hplink">edwin. 11</a>/Flickr
Off Thailand's Andaman coast, in waters renowned for strange creatures and empty horizons, Koh Lanta has become a popular playground for Europeans looking to get beyond the backpacker scene. The larger of the two islands that share the name Koh Lanta is where the vast majority of visitors head to take advantage of broad white sand beaches, excellent diving and a picturesque coastline dotted with mangrove forest and backed by waves of forested hills. Visitors here can also witness the Sea Gypsy communities that still subsist just off the coast. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: The <a href="http://www.thehouben.com/" target="_hplink">Houben Hotel</a> is an architectural marvel, with cantilevered pools sticking out over a modernist shell and over a neatly kept palm grove ($115). Another excellent option is the <a href="http://www.lantasand.com/" target="_hplink">Lanta Sand Resort and Spa</a> ($100 to $200 depending on room size and season). Request a room on the bottom floor so you can roll out of your bed and into the pool. <strong>Getting There</strong>: Use the express transfer, a boat and minivan service that runs from <a href="http://www.krabiairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Krabi</a> and <a href="http://www.phuketairportonline.com/" target="_hplink">Phuket</a> airports and you'll make it to the island in a little less than two hours and probably be only a little worse for the wear. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/pretre/1581410108/" target="_hplink">Pretre</a>/Flickr
Maya Bay is just far enough out of the way--a boat ride or roughly 20-minute walk through the woods--that it feels secluded even though it really isn't. This beach has been attracting a bigger and bigger audience since it served as the backdrop for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach in 2000. (The set was finally washed away in 2004 by the Indonesian tsunami. Swimmers here can lay on their backs and look up across plains of limestone and scrub that almost always give way to clear skies. <strong>Where to Stay</strong>: Koh Phi Phi island has lots of options for the crowds of tourists it attracts. The <a href="http://www.zeavola.com/" target="_hplink">Zeavola Phi Phi</a> Resort (from $250) is a good bet for those looking to salt an authentic Thai vibe with touches of luxury. A nice option further downmarket at $180 is the <a href="http://www.phiphivilla360.com/" target="_hplink">Villa 360 Resort</a>, which overlooks the ocean and, beyond that, the mainland. <strong>Getting There</strong>: Boats are available in Phi Phi Don, where you can choose by variety, speed, and apparent seaworthiness. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tinabasgen/3384013332/" target="_hplink">tinabasgen</a>/Flickr