The Thai cave that riveted the world earlier this year thanks to the daring rescue of a local football team has become a popular tourist spot.
For 18 days this summer, all eyes were fixed on Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand as an international team of experts saved the group of 12 children and their coach from the flooded underground network.
Since its reopening on November 16, the site, situated in the country’s Chiang Rai province, has seen an influx of visitors, with queues of people forming outside waiting to take selfies and lay flowers.
Thousands have passed through the gates since the reopening, although the exact cave where the “Wild Boars” football team were trapped remains closed as authorities continue to assess its safety.
A small, isolated spot set within densely forested hills, the now famous karstic cave system can be found within the Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, near the village of Pong Pha close to the town of Mae Sai.
While the region has had problems attracting visitors in the past, the roads that lead to the park are now lined with more than 100 stalls selling souvenirs, T-shirts and food.
And it’s not just traders that are making the most of the region’s new-found fame. A tented resort to accommodate tourists is currently under construction nearby.
Work is also underway on a museum dedicated to the rescue, which will not only celebrate the bravery of the emergency crews involved but also commemorate diver Saman Kunan, a volunteer and former Thai Navy Seal who lost his life.
“This area will become a living museum, to show how the operation unfolded,” the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told a news conference back in July 2018. “An interactive database will be set up. It will become another major attraction for Thailand.”
In a year that has seen a Thai beach made famous by a Leonardo DiCaprio movie close due to overtourism, the locals here seem happy with their new-found fame.
“This is an amazing thing that has happened for the people in this area,” said Vipa Romaneechutima, who sells lottery tickets near the entrance to the cave.
“People tried to make Tham Luang a tourist attraction before, many times, but it never became popular. Now it is famous all over the world because of the boys saved from the cave. We are not just happy because of the money from tourists. We are also very proud people want to travel here to see our beautiful park. It is an honour for us.”
The popularity of the area was not entirely unexpected, with Thailand’s Prime Minster Prayut Chan-o-cha predicting back in July that the site was likely to become famous.
“It will eventually become an important tourist spot,” he told viewers in a Facebook live video stream from his office. “Therefore we have to come up with (safety) measures to accommodate the tourism activities.”
As the tourism industry booms, the race is also on to make the first film about the rescue.
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