Thai Cave Where Junior Soccer Team and Coach Were Dramatically Rescued Reopens for Tourism

Authorities in Thailand have reopened the cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach were dramatically rescued in an incident that made headlines around the world.

On Friday, around 2,000 tourists arrived at the the Tham Luang cave in northern Chiang Rai province, which was open to visitors for the first time since June 2018 when the boys—members of the Wild Boars junior soccer team—became trapped, Japan Times reported.

The junior team and their coach had entered the cave on June 23 after a practice session but shortly afterwards, heavy rains partially flooded it, blocking the only way to get out.

The boys and coach were stuck inside for nearly three weeks while a rescue operation involving around 7,000 people tried to devise a way to get them out safely. Eventually, the boys and coach were all rescued on July 10, although one Thai ex-navy Seal diver, Saman Kunan, died during the operation.

For now, visitors will not be allowed to enter the cave, officials said, although the safety of the interior will be assessed so this could become a possibility in future.

"We have allowed visitors to see the mouth of the cave," Kamolchai Kotcha, director of the local conservation office which manages the attraction, told AFP.

Kotcha said that some of the equipment that was left behind by the rescue operation—including telephone wires, hoses and zip lines—could be put on display inside the cave at some point in the future.

One of those present at the reopening of the cave was 64-year-old Vernon Unsworth— a diver from the U.K. who played an important role in the rescue operation due to his knowledge of the cave.

"It was the biggest rescue ever mounted," Unsworth told The Guardian. "None of us ever gave up. Once there's hope you just keep going. I think what's happened since is a good thing for the area, a good thing for the people. It's brought a lot of hope."

Thai cave rescue
This aerial picture taken on June 15, 2019 shows the road leading to the visitor centre for the Tham Luang cave, where 12 boys from the "Wild Boars" football team and their coach were trapped last year, in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Another visitor, Sai Kham Boo, 47, from Myanmar was also present for the reopening.

"I cycled 10 kilometers here to try to be the first to enter the cave," he told The Guardian. "I followed the news and was so excited when they came out of the cave. Now I'm so excited to go inside."

Tham Luang is located within Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non national park which was has become something of tourist hotspot since the incident.

Prior to the rescue, officials estimated that about 40,000 tourists visited the park every year. But since the park reopened in November 2018 following last year's rainy season, it has received more than a million visitors even though the Tham Luang cave complex itself has only just begun to accept tourists.

"Tourists who visit this place think it's very important," he said. "They want to learn and experience this wonderful story," Chongklai Voraphongston, deputy director general of Thailand's national park department, told reporters.