PHOTO: ROYAL THAI NAVY / AFP
Thailand has opened a replica of the cave that a soccer team was rescued from during a world-famous mission that captured the attention of the globe.
The exhibit in the northern province of Chiang Rai is meant to represent the Tham Luang Cave where the 12 players and their coach were stuck for more than two weeks in mid-2018 after it flooded.
An international team of divers and Thai Navy Seals pulled each member of the "Wild Boars" team out in a daring three-day operation in which they were sedated and dragged through the narrow, winding passageways.
The new exhibit attempts to recreate the drama with photographs, mannequins and a much smaller version of the massive cave network, according to recent images from the display posted by the government, which has tightly managed access to the team since they were extracted.
The launch of the new attraction was overshadowed by ongoing and unprecedented pro-democracy protests, but the story has also faded from public view in Thailand more than two years later. In a Facebook comment one user mocked the size of the design compared to the actual Tham Luang cave: "Replica?"
It is located in Tham Luang national forest park which has attracted more than a million visitors since the rescue of the boys and their coach.
The cave itself reopened last year and brought out droves of tourists who wanted to visit the site. Souvenir shops selling trinkets, framed photos of the "Wild Boars" team and t-shirts have also popped up in the park as more curious sightseers explore the area.
But local critics have criticized the slow development of the area despite state-backed investments, lamenting the poor facilities and slow road repairs around the majestic surroundings.
Trumpeting the biodiversity and geological features of the area, local authorities aim to have it designated an ASEAN Heritage Park, a title given to prominent conservation spots in Southeast Asia.
The breathtaking 2018 rescue dubbed "Mission Impossible" involved 100 divers from various countries and dominated headlines around the world. It was considered a success apart from the death of a Thai Navy Seal who has been hailed as a hero in the country.
It has also resulted in films, books and a coming Netflix series about the saga while taking the team on far-flung trips abroad to meet with superstar athletes and go on television shows.
Thailand has launched similar exhibits to the replica in recent years, including one in Bangkok where the teammates crawled through a fake cave in a busy mall. But the Chiang Rai provincial government hoped the new attraction would draw more visitors to the area.
The country has lost untold amounts of money from the drop-off in tourism during the pandemic, though the outbreak is largely under control.
On Tuesday the first group of tourists from China arrived in the country after a seven-month lull as Thailand tries to safely kickstart its tourism industry again.