Missing Chinese hit Thailand’s tourist industry

December 19, 2022 08:59
Photo: Bloomberg

On December 10, the Prime Minister went in person to Bangkok airport to welcome the 10 millionth tourists to arrive in his country this year. “The sky is open,” said Prayut Chan-o-cha. “We would like to build confidence that Thailand is still one of the top tourist destinations of people around the world.”

His presence was a symbol of the importance of an industry that accounts for 12 per cent of national GDP. While the figure was only a quarter of the record 39.8 million in 2019 which brought in 1.93 trillion baht (US$55.97 billion) in revenue, it was still commendable in a year in which Thailand’s principal visitor markets were ravaged by Covid.

Worst hit was China, the country’s number one tourism market. In 2019, 10.99 million Chinese visited Thailand, up 4.4 per cent on 2018. As part of its Zero-Covid policy, Beijing did not issue passports to its people for tourism except in exceptional cases.

Signs at Bangkok airport are in Thai, English and simplified Chinese, as are many restaurant menus.

In 2022, the top three countries for visitors have been Malaysia, India and Singapore. Before the pandemic, the top three were China, Malaysia and India. In 2019, Chinese accounted for 27.9 per cent of the visitors. This figure fell to 2.6 per cent this year.

To make up for this loss, the Thai government concentrated its marketing this year in India and Russia. It paid off, with 858,000 visitors from India and 311,000 Russians so far. Since their country invaded Ukraine, Russians cannot obtain tourist visas for countries in Europe and look for destinations elsewhere. In addition, 90,000 visitors came to Thailand from Saudi Arabia.

A survey by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in July and August found that the top activity for tourists was eating Thai food, 90 per cent, followed by spas and massage parlours, 48 per cent, going to the beach, also 48 per cent, and visiting historical places, 46 per cent.

Medical tourism is a big earner. The country’s Medical Tourism Association said that Thailand ranked fifth in the world in 2021 as the most popular health tourism destination. Most patients came from Kuwait, followed by Cambodia, Myanmar, Japan and China. These medical tourists spent an average of 35,000 baht.

Marisa Sukosol, president of the Thai Hotels Association, said that hotel owners and restauranteurs were greatly relieved at the recovery. “We welcomed the 10 million milestone after two and a half years of pain,” Sukosol said. “I think next year we will see continuous growth, with a return of tourists from Russia and across the Asia-Pacific region.”

The government target for 2023 is 23 million, but this will depend greatly on China relaxing international travel rules.

Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told a meeting last week that tourists from ASEAN and other Asian countries were their main target for 2023. “Those from the US and Europe have started to decrease because of the economic crisis,” he said. “We will focus on generating quality tourists with high spending, as well as medical tourism. I am confident tourism revenue in 2023 will reach 80 per cent of pre-Covid level.”

Laurent Le Blanc, a French businessman resident in Thailand for seven years, said that the sex industry continued to flourish, especially in the Bangkok areas of Nana and Patpong. “Many make money out of it, including bar owners and owners of properties where clients go with the young ladies. Many come from rural areas of Thailand, where farmers are poor, and send money home. The government prefers a wealthier class of tourist who spend more than those coming for sex. Many of the clients come from Asia. The ladies are from Thailand, not overseas.”

Thailand is a popular destination for Hong Kong travellers, especially since quarantine restrictions were lifted. “Thailand has got it all,” said Mary Leung, visiting Bangkok with her husband.

“We like the food, the massages, the beaches, the many shopping malls and prices considerably lower than in Hong Kong. Since tourism is such an important industry, staff are warm and polite.

“Also, when we came, there were no health checks at the airport or other places, even though most people still wear masks. We did not have to use a ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ app. That has been a relief. We have felt more relaxed,” she said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.