By Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand will restore confidence in its critical tourism sector, officials said on Wednesday, a day after a shooting spree at a luxury shopping mall in which two foreigners were killed clouded hopes for a recovery in overseas visitors.
Police have arrested a teenager suspected of unleashing a volley of gunfire at the Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok's commercial heart on Tuesday, killing two women, one from China and the other from Myanmar, and wounding five people.
The shooting came as new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is trying to bolster tourism, a key driver of Southeast Asia's second largest economy that has been slow to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
China is vital to that effort as the biggest source of foreign visitors to Thailand in pre-COVID years.
Srettha's administration last month introduced visa-free entry for Chinese nationals to facilitate travel and help overcome what Thailand had said were unfounded worries about safety.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said government agencies would do even more to restore confidence.
"We need to improve security in all areas for Thai and foreign tourists," she told reporters without outlining any specific steps.
Srettha, a property developer who was elected prime minister in August, said in a social media post late on Tuesday that his government would "implement the highest safety measures" for tourists.
Although gun violence and gun ownership are common in Thailand, security checks in public areas, including shopping malls and transport systems, are typically relaxed.
"This will impact tourism confidence and will affect our reputation," said Somsong Sachaphimukh, vice president of the Tourism Council of Thailand industry group.
"In the past, there were complaints about safety from China but this was something unthinkable."
Chinese visitors accounted for 11 million of a record 39.9 million foreign tourists to Thailand in 2019.
But their return to Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, has been sluggish, prompting the government's decision on the visa waiver ahead of the main tourism season.
Thailand recorded 20 million foreign tourist arrivals in the January to October period, who spent 839 billion baht ($22.58 billion). Its target is 29 million visitors this year.
In China, the shooting has raised new doubt about Thailand.
"Before, I was thinking about going to Thailand for vacation but after seeing the news last night I don't think it's very good or safe, so I don't plan to go," said a 28-year-old surnamed Song in the city of Hangzhou.
"Right now, I only plan to travel domestically."
At the re-opened Siam Paragon mall on a typically gridlocked Bangkok thoroughfare, crowds were trickling back. A bouquet of flowers was propped up next to one entrance to the mall.
Dong Peijian, a 34-year-old Chinese tourist, said he was shocked by the shooting.
"These sort of shooting incidents ... would make Chinese people re-consider and opt for holidays in other countries," he said.
(Additional reporting by Napat Wesshasartar and Thomas Suen in Bangkok and Nicoco Chan in Hangzhou, China; writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; editing by Robert Birsel)