Thailand’s golden beaches, shopping districts and ornate temples are once again filling with tourists and Chinese vacationers are enjoying a particularly VIP welcome thanks to a new visa waiver program.
Pledging to revive the country’s economy, new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced a visa waiver policy for Chinese and Kazakh tourists that would run from September 25 to February 24 next year, signaling that the Recovery of the Thai tourism industry is a top priority.
The policy came just in time for China’s “Golden Week” holiday period, centered around the National Day on October 1.
This year’s Golden Week coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival, marking a 10-day period of travel from September 29 to October 8. It is also one of the first holiday periods since the Covid-19 pandemic during which Chinese people can travel without restrictions.
Chinese visitors arriving from Shanghai were greeted with gifts, distributed by Sretta and tourism ministers, at Bangkok airport on Monday as the visa waiver policy came into effect.
“We are convinced that this project will significantly boost the economy,” Sretta told reporters.
“We would like to encourage more visits from Chinese tourists, not just to big cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket.”
He noted that the Thai government hopes to see travelers visit more small towns, extend their stay and increase their spending.
This week’s warm welcome was appreciated by Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin said at a news conference on Tuesday.
China was once Thailand’s largest source of tourists, with nearly 11 million visitors heading to the Southeast Asian country in 2019, accounting for more than a quarter of international arrivals before the Covid pandemic. -19 does not cause the global tourism market to fall.
These figures are in stark contrast to those for 2023. Only 2.2 million Chinese travelers arrived between January and September 10 this year, according to data from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin welcomed travelers on the first day of the government’s visa waiver program for Chinese tourists.
Southeast Asian countries had high hopes for a resumption of international travel to boost their tourism sector after pandemic shutdowns, with their positive forecasts reinforced by China eases travel restrictions early 2023.
But with a sluggish Chinese economy, a weaker yuan and grim unemployment figures, regional tourism hubs have had to lower their expectations and prepare for a longer road to recovery.
Gary Bowerman, founder of Check-in Asia, a tourism-focused research and marketing firm, said the new visa waiver strategy sets the tone not only for peak Golden Week seasons, but also for the upcoming Christmas and Lunar New Year holiday periods.
“The competition is really heating up in the region to attract Chinese tourists from all countries, and we need to make it as easy as possible,” Bowerman said.
He added that China’s outbound travel industry is going through a “transitional period” as travel trends and sentiments have changed since the pandemic, while more Chinese consumers are also seeking experiences different – often with smaller budgets.
Last year, China did not allow its citizens to travel out of the country for leisure due to its Covid restrictions. This sparked a boom in domestic tourism.
Today, even though the economy is struggling, people who can afford to travel are increasingly taking advantage of the opportunity to go abroad for a brief escape.
Among them is a technician named Huang. On Xiaohongshu, China’s equivalent of Instagram, she told CNN that she spent the October long vacation on a road trip to the western part of Sichuan province last year, but that this This time, she was flying to Thailand for a surfing adventure.
“I’ve been there before. What I want to see and experience the most is surfing. I still have no idea what the waves are like in Thailand, and this time I’m going to explore new destinations” , she said.
Outbound international travel bookings are nearly 20 times higher compared to the same holiday period last year, according to Trip.com, which also operates China’s largest travel booking platform, Ctrip.
As of September 2022, for example, more than 70 major Chinese cities were under lockdown. coronavirus lockdownsaffecting some 300 million people.
After the visa waiver program was revealed on September 13, hotel bookings in Thailand jumped 6,220% compared to the same period last year, Trip.com reported. Thailand is expected to become the top tourist destination for Chinese outbound travelers, closely followed by South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.
More than 21 million passengers will travel by air in China during Golden Week, with an average of 17,000 outbound international flights and 14,000 domestic flights per day, said Jin Junhao, deputy director of the Aviation Administration. civil society of China. a press conference.
Trains are also busier than ever, transporting travelers to China’s many far-flung destinations.
China Railway estimates that around 190 million train trips will be made during the 12 peak days from September 27 to October 8, according to the railway reservation platform. 12306.
This is more than double the 72 million trips taken on the same vacation last year and even exceeds the 138 million trips taken in 2019, before the pandemic.
Despite the increase in numbers, China’s outbound international flight capacity is still down about 50%, much lower than other countries, and international flight fares are still much higher than in 2019 in due to limited capacity available, said Joanna Lu, head of consulting for Asia at Ascend by Cirium.
Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Chinese tourists pray in front of Thai dancers at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, September 22, 2023.
At the same time, travel habits have changed since the pandemic. Chinese travelers venturing out of the country these days want new experiences at a reasonable price, said Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, CEO of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI).
“There has been a shift in that people are looking for value for money,” he said.
Those with purchasing power will continue to travel not only for leisure, but also want to spend time on business, health, education and family during these trips, he adds.
Before the visa waiver policy was announced this month, Chinese tourists were slow to return to Thailand.
In the first seven months of 2023, China was absent from the list of Thailand’s top tourist source markets for the first time in a decade, according to data from Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports released in August.
Complicating efforts to win back this lucrative market, social media users in China have reportedly expressed fears about visiting Thailand, amid rumors that travelers could be kidnapped and sent across the border. the border to work there. scam centers in Myanmar or Cambodia. These accusations were further strengthened with the release of the film “No More Bets,” a thriller set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country where people are lured into working in fraudulent factories.
Meanwhile, a hashtag that translates to “why people don’t want to travel to Thailand” has been viewed 420 million times on Weibo and was one of the top talking points on the social media site last month , with some users saying they were afraid of being lured into scam factories. , while others indicated that the visa process took too long at that time.
This has prompted the government to try to restore confidence among Chinese consumers, said Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents. He added that the rumors were false and that these illicit operations were taking place in neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, not Thailand.
Whatever the reason for the low number of arrivals at the start of the year, Thailand’s tourism industry is still banking on a boom as Chinese travelers hit the road for the next vacation.
“It may not be 100% yet, but it’s getting better. Tour operators have prepared,” Sisdivachr said.