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You don't hear about a lot of violent crime on Phuket; in fact, it's virtually non-existent which makes those few incidents that do occur all the more shocking.  Now, there have been two in the past few days — Friday night a Thai bartender was gunned down in Soi Eric and just last night the popular Crocodile Disco was destroyed by fire.  The two events may very well be related.  At any rate, expats and locals seem understably worried that anything like this could be yet one more thing keeping tourists from visiting (and spending their money on) Phuket.

The murder and the fire come on the heels of a slight panic caused by the Thai press reporting Phuket was under a tsunami alert last week.  It seems that there was some unusual seismic activity in the Andaman Sea near Ranong; some 31 small earthquakes had occurred which might signal the creation of a new volcano that could affect coastal areas in the region.  But the way The Nation and other national newspapers reported it, Phuket was in imminent danger from a new tsunami.  Islanders are naturally sensitive to any possibility of danger from the sea.

A case in point:  I subscribe to the e-mail news service of the Phuket Gazette.  One recent news item mentioned that the government would be testing several of the island's new tsunami warning towers.  My first thought was, "I hope they inform everyone about this," knowing there would be many who would hear the sirens and try to flee the coastal areas thinking it was the real thing.  Sure enough, several days later there was a news item describing how many citizens heard the test and panicked.  Evidently, before the first test there was a brief announcement in English! that "this is only a test," but not between subsequent blasts of the sirens.  Luckily, there wasn't a whole-scale crowd of people rushing to higher ground but the fear was certainly there among those who hadn't heard the towers would be tested.

With all of this, it's important that the island government actively pursues increased amounts of tourism.  If there are incidents of violence, they need to be prepared to dilute any fears potential visitors might have.  Murder is so rare in Thai society, particularly against foreigners, that the few that do occur tend to be widely reported.  This past New Year's Eve, a British tourist on Koh Samui was murdered on the beach (she was grabbed while talking to her mother on her cellular phone).  The island and national governments got involved to such a degree that this was front-page news for weeks; the Prime Minister stated that this was such a detriment to future tourism that those involved in the murder would be hunted down and put to death.  (Two men have since been arrested — both are fishermen who admitted to getting very drunk and watching porno movies before swimming to shore and encountering the victim — and are awaiting trial.)

Not only is Phuket suffering from a lack of tourists, but so is the rest of Thailand.  In general, many Westerners — not just Americans — have been afraid to go abroad since the bombings of September 11th and the start of the war in Iraq.  SARS and Bird Flu have contributed as well.  And political turmoil has been bubbling in Thailand recently; new elections are scheduled for April and there have been some large demonstrations as well as a bombing in Bangkok last week.  Certainly, this doesn't compare with unrest in other parts of the world but it does tend to keep uninformed visitors away in droves.

I'm wholeheartedly in favor of promoting tourism and also believe that if you really want to visit a place you shouldn't let overblown reports of things that "might happen" keep you away.  When I told a friend last year that I was going to London he asked if I was afraid because of the Tube bombings.  I replied that if something bad were to happen wherever I was, going there wouldn't stop it.  I have greater odds of being killed simply driving to the grocery store or post office than I do of being killed by a terrorist bombing, stray gunfire, or a rogue wave.  I could walk outside my apartment and get struck by lightning.  I'm not going to live and travel in fear; you take some precautions but you don't go overboard and fear ever leaving the city in which you live.  Mind you, I'm not going to fly off to Baghdad to see the ruins but I think I can be pretty safe anywhere I want to go on this great planet of ours.

It turns out the primary suspect in the Soi Eric murder is a former officer of the Royal Thai Police Special Branch.  He was working as a security guard for Crazy Bar and was seen having an argument with his counterpart at Snack Bar a couple of days before the murder.  He's thought to be hiding out in Bangkok.  Two men thought to have been his accomplices have been caught and a Honda Wave motorbike, thought to have been the getaway vehicle, has been seized.  The fire at Crocodile Disco looks to have been a separate incident, afterall (there had been a lot of speculation about gang activity linking the two).