Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Murder disturbs top Thai resort

SPOOKED The unsolved rape and killing of a young British backpacker has upset visitors to the nation's fastest growing holiday destination

THE GUARDIAN , KOH SAMUI, THAILAND

It was standing room only at the bars on Koh Samui's Chaweng beach at 11.30pm on Thursday night as thousands of mostly young foreign tourists settled in for another night's drinking, dancing and making new friends.

Nothing appeared amiss. Hostesses were smiling overtime to attract patrons, everyone had to shout to make themselves heard over the music, groups posed for holiday snaps and there was plenty of laughter.

But beneath the jocularity some people admitted to being nervous about staying on what has become Thailand's fastest growing holiday destination. The rape and murder of Katherine Horton, a 21-year-old backpacker from Wales, on Jan. 1 a few kilometers from Chaweng shocked not just the tourist community, but the whole island.

"I have real concerns when I hear stories about things like that," said Dave Moogan, 31, an engineer from the UK in a bar with four friends. "We're not going to change our plans but we are going to take greater care."

The killing has had a much greater impact on women.

"I don't really like it here; I'm spooked," said Carly Hopkins, 24, also from the UK. "I wouldn't come back. There are lots of things ... but it's really the murder."

The authorities appear even more worried. More than 100 detectives have been deployed to the holiday island that lies outh of Bangkok, and scores more are providing back-up in the capital. They announced yesterday that they have a DNA sample from semen found on the victim and are taking samples from at least six foreigners, including four Britons, and more than a dozen Thais.

"This case has caused severe damage to the reputation of our nation and the tourist business," Thailand Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra said on Friday.

Regular visitors cannot remember an incident and reaction like it on the island.

"Everyone is shocked by it because it's so unusual," said a freelance British writer, Jules Kaye. "Everyone's worried it's going to give Samui a reputation it doesn't deserve."

"We haven't had anything like it for a long time," said the island's mayor, Marakorn Pattanark. "Yes, we have petty crime but where doesn't? This is something new."

The fact that Horton was British is of particular concern because about 157,000 Britons visited the island last year, more than from any other country.

"Most people will probably forget about it in about a year. But the British won't and we need the British because so many come," Marakorn said. "Hopefully the police will catch the culprit soon."

Others in the tourism industry are more confident. Paul Watson, who runs an Irish bar, Tropical Murphy's, on Chaweng beach, said: "People understand these things do happen in holiday resorts, they could happen anywhere. Resorts are very resilient."

He maintains that Asia has bounced back from bombings, the SARS epidemic, the tsunami, and bird flu.

Koh Samui has experienced a triple boom recently, benefiting from the financial crisis which suddenly made Thailand very cheap for visitors, the 2002 Bali bombing which discouraged people from going to Indonesia, and the tsunami in Dec. 26, 2004 that destroyed the west coast of Thailand but left Koh Samui unscathed.

The mayor hopes the tragedy will stir the central government into approving his request to turn the island into a separate municipality.

This would result in a bigger budget for security.

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