By Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um
Thailand will restore confidence in its critical tourism sector, officials said on Wednesday, a day after a shooting spree at a luxury shopping mall in which two foreigners were killed clouded hopes for a recovery in overseas visitors.
Police have arrested a teenager suspected to have entered the Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok's commercial heart on Tuesday and unleashed a volley of gunfire, killing two women, one from China and the other from Myanmar, and wounding five people.
The shooting came as new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is trying to bolster tourism, a key driver of southeast Asia's second largest economy that has been slow to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
China is vital to that effort as the biggest source of foreign visitors to Thailand in pre-Covid years.
Srettha's administration last month introduced visa-free entry for Chinese nationals to facilitate travel and help overcome what Thailand had said were unfounded concerns about safety.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said government agencies would do even more to restore confidence.
"We need to improve security in all areas for Thai and foreign tourists," she told reporters without outlining any specific steps.
Srettha, a property developer who was elected prime minister in August, said in a social media post late on Tuesday that his government would "implement the highest safety measures" for tourists.
Although gun violence and gun ownership are common in Thailand, security checks in public areas, including shopping malls and transport systems, are typically relaxed.
"This will impact tourism confidence and will affect our reputation," said Somsong Sachaphimukh, vice president of the Tourism Council of Thailand industry group.
"In the past, there were complaints about safety from China but this was something unthinkable."
Chinese visitors accounted for 11 million of a record 39.9 million foreign tourists to Thailand in 2019, before the pandemic.
But their return to Thailand, and elsewhere in southeast Asia, has been sluggish, prompting the government's decision on the visa waiver ahead of the main tourism season.
Thailand recorded 20 million foreign tourist arrivals in the January to October period, who spent 839-billion baht ($22.58-billion). Its target is 29 million visitors this year.
At the re-opened Siam Paragon mall, on a typically gridlocked thoroughfare, crowds were trickling back. A bouquet of flowers was propped up next to one entrance to the mall.
Dong Peijian, a 34-year-old Chinese tourist, said he was unsettled by the shooting.
"I'm quite shocked," he said, "These sort of shooting incidents ... would make Chinese people re-consider and opt for holidays in other countries."