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Rescue of Thai cave boys creates a tourist draw

China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-19 09:00

Vendors sell souvenir photos on Thursday in Mae Sai, Thailand, on the road leading to the Tham Luang cave, in which 12 boys from the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were trapped last year. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MAE SAI, Thailand - Tourists snap selfies by a bronze statue of the diver who died trying to save the Wild Boars soccer team from a flooded cave, while mementos from their rescue fly off the shelves - scooped up by more than 1 million people who have descended on a once serene mountainside in northern Thailand.

"It's amazing what happened here. I followed everything from Australia," tourist John McGowan said after taking photographs at the visitor center around 100 meters from the Tham Luang cave entrance.

"I wanted to see it with my own eyes," the 60-year-old said, adding he was a little disappointed the cave is still off-limits to visitors.

For a few dollars, tourists can get framed photographs at the site, pick up posters of the soccer players and take home a souvenir T-shirt - some printed with the face of Saman Gunan, the Thai diver who died in the bid to save the group.

There has been extraordinary global interest in the picturesque northern backwater since 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their coach entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23 last year.

They quickly became trapped by rising water levels and the daring, unprecedented mission to extract them through twisting flooded passageways captivated the world for 18 nail-biting days.

When they emerged - after being heavily sedated and maneuvered out by expert divers - they encountered a global media frenzy.

The cave, which previously received around 5,000 visitors a year, has since been inundated by visitors, both Thai and foreign.

"A miracle has happened here with these children," Singaporean tourist Cheong, giving one name, said, adding that Tham Luang "must still have a spiritual side" despite the mass popularity.

Tragedy and luck

Bordering Myanmar, Mae Sai district was considered off the beaten track for foreign visitors.

But between October 2018 and April this year alone "1.3 million people visited", said site manager Kawee Prasomphol.

The Thai government now has big plans for the area around the storied cave, Kawee added, allocating a total of 50 million baht ($1.6 million) including a shopping complex, restaurants, hotels and several campsites outside the national park.

Vans disgorge streams of tourists who explore a visitor hub where the centerpiece is a mural entitled The Heroes. It depicts the young boys, stars of the rescue, and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha - a reminder of the governmental fingerprints in aiding their cause.

At the heart of the mural is the beaming face of Saman Gunan, the former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of compressed air on the way back to the ground after bringing in cylinders to the children and their coach. He was the only fatality during the near three-week rescue mission.

Laying white flowers at the foot of his bronze statue, Thai nurse Sumalee, who traveled four hours to the site, described him as "the hero of the whole country" in a sobering reminder of the risks involved in the rescue amid the blizzard of marketing opportunities now attached to the cave story.

Nearby lottery ticket vendors are capitalizing on the perceived good fortune linked to the boys' survival and the folkloric appeal of a nearby shrine. The number of stalls has mushroomed from a few dozen to around 250.

Agence France-Presse

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