WASHINGTON - As Chinese tourists return to Thailand after the pandemic curtailed travel, so are the scams that Thai authorities worry will taint the country's reputation even if most of the victims and perpetrators appear to be Chinese.
Deputy Police Chief Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn said at a news conference last month that 18 Chinese were charged with fraud for allegedly selling overpriced, supposedly holy, amulets to Chinese tourists visiting Khao Chi Chan temple in Chonburi province. The temple, a Buddhist landmark, is about 160 kilometers southeast of Bangkok in an area famed for its natural beauty and delectable seafood.
The alleged fraud involves sales of amulets, objects of either faith or fashion, coveted by Chinese tourists. Real ones sell for thousands of dollars depending on their provenance and material. The ones sold to Chinese tourists, while expensive, are fake.
The fraudulent sales occurred during the first half of 2023, and 20 people have been charged, according to police. Sixteen are male, 18 are Chinese and two are Thai.
The Khao Chi Chan temple incident signals the return of a long-standing tourist scam that disappeared as the pandemic arrived. Surachate told VOA Thai that four other temples in Chonburi are under investigation for running similar scams.
Some two dozen other Chonburi-area temples suspected of selling fake amulets closed after authorities announced the arrests at Khao Chi Chan temple, Surachate said.
Police Colonel Danprai Kaewwehol, the Immigration Bureau's deputy investigation commander, said at the news conference that a group of tour operators persuaded Chinese tourists to purchase amulets after they participated in rituals inside the Kao Chi Chan temple.
The religious items, priced at $715 to $2,830, were worth about $11 each, he said.
The amulets are copies of those in one of the most famous amulet collections, Phra Somdej Wat Rakang.
Police recovered about $3.7 million worth of cash, land and property from the Chinese suspects. Wisutthammanusitsomsak, the Khao Chi Chan abbot, was charged with malfeasance and granted bail for leasing space to the tour operators, according to Surachate, who added that a relative and an aide of the abbot were also involved. As abbot, Wisutthammanusitsomsak uses only one name.
The investigation also found that sales from credit cards were credited to entities in China, according to Surachate. The money kept the operation running in Thailand, police said.
Yuttasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), told VOA Thai that such scams threaten the nation's post-pandemic tourism industry, which has targeted Chinese tourists with ads and offerings.
He urged law enforcement to close businesses that exploit Chinese tourists 'by bringing them in with a low cost and seeking to profit by selling them low quality goods at high prices from their own network of outlets.'
Surachate said at the news conference that China's President Xi Jinping more than five years ago urged putting an end to such zero-dollar tourism.
'He [President Xi] wanted Chinese people to come and see the history of the Thai nation, see the Temple of Emerald Buddha, not locked in a route to tourist attractions or restaurants,' Surachate said.
Thai Buddhists have long purchased amulets as religious totems, charms and collectibles. Prices range from almost nothing to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on an amulet's origin and the holy powers attributed to it.
Thai temples generate operating income by producing and selling amulets and other sacred goods. The government and Thailand's Buddhist governing body, the Supreme Sangha Council, regulate the sales.
Intiporn Chan-iam, acting director of the National Office of Buddhism, said at the news conference that temples have become targets of fraudulent activity and urged abbots to be aware of the regulations covering sales of religious items.
But growing demand coming from inside and outside Thailand coupled with sophisticated technologies have made amulets, real and counterfeit, a big business with Chinese buyers, pushing prices up for the past decade.
Complicating any crackdown is the belief that once a monk sanctifies a fake, the amulet 'will still afford protection to the owner - as long as he or she respects it, and behaves well according to Buddhist precepts,' says Tanistha Danslip in her book, Things Thai.
Wang Lei, an amulet dealer in Beijing, told the Global Times that most Chinese tourists view the amulets as fashion accessories rather than religious items, although some of his customers believed wearing an amulet would bring them good luck.
Through the first six months of 2023, Thailand welcomed 15.4 million foreign tourists, a five-fold increase over the same period in 2022, on track to reach the government's goal of 25 million visitors.
After the 2.4 million Malaysians, Chinese are the second largest group with 1.85 million, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sport. Russians, South Koreans and Indians are next at about 800,000-900,000 each, while Americans account for about 534,000.