Reality series causing 'Trouble' in Thailand

Footage of tourist rip-offs riles authorities during recovery

HONG KONG -- "Big Trouble," a U.K. docu-entertainment series filmed in Thailand, has stirred up a rumpus.

Police lieutenant general Santhan Chayanont, chief of Provincial Police Region 8, whose beat covers the seaside resort of Phuket, has suggested that the series that is now airing on the U.K.'s Bravo channel may be part of a coordinated attempt to smear Thailand and its tourist friendly reputation.

Weerasak Kowsurat, the ministry level official who heads the Tourism Authority of Thailand, has launched two separate probes into the making of the series, as well as an operation to clean-up tourist industry practices.

The eight-part series, produced and directed by Gavin Hill for Vera Productions and Bravo and originally titled "Thai Cops," details a succession of incidents in Phuket, a beach resort that is popular with British and overseas tourists, and other locations.

In the first episode, a jet-ski hire operator is shown ripping off tourists by seeking compensation for alleged damage to the vessel. His victims include a group of vacationing Royal Navy Marines, whom he threatens with an air rifle. He was later arrested by police after an argument.

Footage of the same jet-ski operator extracting money from a group of U.S. servicemen was not included in the U.K. series, but has appeared on YouTube.   

''I don't know what's going to happen now with the series. [The Thailand Film Office has] pulled all the releases and permissions that are required to complete the series," Hill told media in Thailand.

Producers deny that is the case.

"Vera Productions has received no communication from the Thailand Film Office as yet, nor has any other government agency in Thailand sought to have broadcasts of the series halted. We are confident that we have all the necessary release forms and permissions necessary to complete and broadcast the whole series," Vera told The Hollywood Reporter in a written statement.

Contacted by The Hollywood Reporter, the Film Office offered no comment on the show or its own actions.

Hill said that the series was filmed with the active co-operation of the local police in Phuket. He said that it portrays Thailand in a positive light as it shows authorities acting against crime.

The series's second episode, which aired on Bravo on Monday, features Brits behaving badly and Thai military police chasing drunken tourists. It includes an interview with a British national jailed in Phuket for alleged ATM offenses.

"Both the filming and editing of the series has been a fair and true representation of events. We take very seriously our responsibility as a production company both to our contributors and our broadcaster to deliver this fair representation and we firmly believe we have done so.

"We are more than happy to co-operate with the appropriate authorities on any matter relating to the show and, in the light of the show that was broadcast, welcome the governor of Phuket's decision to clamp down on the jet-ski industry and request mandatory insurance," Vera's statement said.

Even before "Big Trouble" local authorities had organized a summit meeting about jet-ski and similar scams at beach resorts. In July the country's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered a crackdown on unlicensed taxi and tour guides operating from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.

Just entering the annual high season, tourism is one of Thailand's biggest industries. But it had barely recovered from the effects of the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami, when it was hit by the global recession and political turmoil last year that closed Suvarnabhumi for over a week.

Other recent unhappy incidents have included a series of tourist drownings at Phuket's Karon beach; the death of a British boy in a Pattaya swimming pool; and last Friday's conviction in Los Angeles of film producers Gerald and Patricia Green for bribing the former Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Juthamas Siriwan.

Earlier this month a Pakistani reality show contestant died in Bangkok while trying to swim a lake while wearing a 7kg backpack.