One of the boats, the double-decker cruise ship Phoenix PC Diving, was carrying 105 passengers — including 93 tourists, all from China — when it capsized Thursday after leaving Koh Racha, a popular snorkeling spot.
Phuket officials said Friday evening that 33 bodies had been recovered so far, all of them Chinese nationals. Twenty-three other people were missing.
The second boat, the Serenita, sank Thursday off Koh Mai Thon, a small resort island off the coast of Phuket. There were 42 people aboard, all of whom were rescued, officials said.
The boats had gone out to sea despite a severe weather warning.
Somjing Boontham, who said he was the captain of the Phoenix, said he had urged passengers to put on life jackets while crew members frantically lowered lifeboats as huge waves slammed and tilted the boat. Pictures from the scene showed lifeboats carrying up to 20 people, some of them children.
The capsizings came as Thailand has been transfixed by the efforts to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.
Wang Xudong, who is with a private search-and-rescue group from China, had been assisting at the cave, but on Friday he was preparing to search for his countrymen lost at sea instead.
“I never expected to be here in Phuket for something like this,” he said. “We had good news at the cave, and I hope we can have some good news in Phuket, too. I want to help out any way I can, either for Thai people or Chinese people.”
The Chinese state news media said a total of 127 Chinese tourists were involved in the two episodes, including 37 people on one boat who worked for a furniture company in Zhejiang. Many of the tourists on the Phoenix were staying at major international resorts on Phuket.
On Friday morning, helicopters, police officers and fishing boats were swarming the area in search of survivors. The Phoenix PC was believed to be 120 feet below the surface of the water.
“We will conduct air searches and send divers to check inside the sunken Phoenix boat,” Phuket’s governor, Noraphat Plothong, said Friday morning. “Police investigators said most of the tourists were wearing life jackets. I assume they are trapped inside the boat,” he said, adding that he hoped some had survived.
More than a quarter of the foreign tourists who go to Thailand are Chinese, according to government data. More than 10 percent of Thailand’s economy depends on tourism.
A Chinese movie, “Lost in Thailand,” helped to drive the Southeast Asian country’s popularity as a holiday destination for Chinese visitors.
On June 28, a Chinese tourist drowned at Karon Beach on Phuket. Red flags, indicating that the water was not safe to swim in because of rip currents, had been placed on the beach.
Phuket, one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which killed hundreds of people on the island. In the years since, Chinese and Russian tourists have flocked to Phuket, changing the character of tourism there. Many signs in Phuket are now in Chinese and Cyrillic, in addition to English.
The tourism infrastructure on Phuket and on nearby Andaman Sea islands has been strained by the influx. Maya Bay, famous for appearing in the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach,” was ordered closed on June 1 by Thailand’s Department of National Parks in order to give the bay’s coastal and coral-reef ecosystems time to recover from the onslaught of day-trippers. The beach is on Koh Phi Phi Leh, not far from Phuket.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Angie Chan and Hannah Beech © 2018 The New York Times