Golden beaches, upscale shopping areas, and elaborate temples in Thailand are once again thronged with visitors, and thanks to a new visa-free program, Chinese tourists are being given a particularly warm welcome.
Srettha Thavisin, the country's newly appointed prime minister, pledged to revitalize the economy of the nation and announced a visa-free period for Chinese and Kazakh tourists that would run from September 25 to February 24, 2019. This move indicated that Thailand's tourism sector revival is a key priority.
Just in time for China's "Golden Week" holiday period, which is centered around National Day on October 1, the new regulation was implemented.
Golden Week this year falls on the same 10-day period as the Mid-Autumn Festival, from September 29 to October 8. One of the first holiday seasons without travel restrictions for citizens of China since the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the visa-free policy went into effect on Monday, Sretta and the tourism ministers welcomed Chinese travelers coming from Shanghai at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport with gifts.
According to Sretta, "We are confident that this plan will substantially boost the economy."
In addition to big towns like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket, we would like to promote additional visits from Chinese visitors.
He mentioned that the Thai government wants tourists to spend more money by staying longer and visiting more rural villages.
Beijing appreciated this week's cordial welcome, according to China's Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin, who spoke at a press conference on Tuesday.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the global tourism business, China was the main supplier of tourists to Thailand, sending about 11 million travelers there in 2019. This is more than a fourth of all foreign arrivals to the Southeast Asian country.
In sharp contrast to those figures is 2023. This year, from January and September 10, just 2.2 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, according to figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Following the pandemic shutdowns, Southeast Asian nations had high expectations for a recovery in international travel to bolster their tourism industries. Their optimistic projections were supported by China's lifting of travel restrictions in early 2023.
Regional travel hubs have to lower their expectations and prepare for a more difficult road to recovery, however, due to the slowing Chinese economy, the weaker yuan, and alarming unemployment rates.
The new visa-exemption policy, according to Gary Bowerman, head of the tourism-focused research and marketing firm Check-in Asia, "sets the tone not just for the Golden Week peak
Chinese tourists are becoming increasingly difficult to draw to the region, therefore you must make it as simple as possible, according to Bowerman.
According to him, the Chinese outbound travel market is in a "transitory period" as a result of shifting travel attitudes and habits following the epidemic, as well as an increase in the number of Chinese customers looking for unique experiences, frequently on a tighter budget.
Due to COVID-19 limitations, China last year forbade its nationals from taking recreational trips abroad. That led to a rise in domestic travel.
People who can afford to travel are increasingly taking advantage of the chance to fly overseas for a quick getaway even while the economy is struggling.
A person with the last name Huang works in technology. She revealed to CNN on Xiaohongshu, China's version of Instagram, that last year she traveled to the western portion of Sichuan province for the long October holiday; this year, however, she will be traveling to Thailand to go surfing.
"I've already been there. Surfing is what I'm most interested in seeing and doing. This time, I'll be traveling to some new places, and I still don't know what the waves in Thailand are like," she remarked.
According to Trip.com, which also runs Ctrip, China's largest travel booking site, outbound foreign travel bookings are more than 20 times more than they were during the same holiday season last year.
For instance, more than 70 major Chinese cities were placed on lockdown in September 2022, affecting 300 million people.
According to Trip.com, hotel reservations in Thailand increased 6,220% after the visa-free program was made public on September 13. According to projections, Thailand will be the most popular tourist destination for Chinese tourists traveling abroad, followed closely by South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
According to Jin Junhao, a deputy director at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, over 21 million people will travel by air in China during the Golden Week period, with an average of 17,000 daily outbound international flights and another 14,000 daily domestic flights.
Additionally, more individuals are traveling domestically by train to China's numerous remote locations than ever before.
According to the rail booking website 12306, China Railway anticipates that 190 million rail journeys will be made over the 12-day peak travel period from September 27 to October 8.
That surpasses the 138 million journeys taken in 2019, before the pandemic, and is more than twice the 72 million trips taken over the same holiday last year.
Despite the increase in passengers, Joanna Lu, head of the consultancy for Asia at Ascend by Cirium, noted that China's outbound international flight capacity is still down by about 50%, significantly less than that of other nations, and that international flight fares are still significantly higher than in 2019.
CEO of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), Chinese tourists who travel abroad today seek out novel experiences at affordable prices.
"There's been a change in that people are looking for value for their money," he remarked.
The wealthy will continue to travel, and not only for vacation; they also want to fit in time for business, health, education, and time with their families.
Before this month's announcement of the visa-free regime, Chinese visitors to Thailand had been reluctant to come back.
According to data from Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports released in August, China was not among the top source markets for tourists during the first seven months of 2023 for the first time in a decade.
The fact that social media users in China have expressed concerns about visiting Thailand due to rumors that suggest tourists could be kidnapped and transferred across the border to labor in fraud centers in Myanmar or Cambodia complicates efforts to reclaim this rich market. The release of the movie "No More Bets," which is set in an undisclosed Southeast Asian nation where individuals are recruited to work in sham factories, added fuel to such claims.
A hashtag that translates to "why people don't want to go to Thailand" garnered 420 million views on Weibo and was a hot topic of conversation there last month. Some users claimed they were worried about being tricked into scam factories, while others complained that the visa application process at the time was too drawn out.
According to Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, head of the Thai Travel Agents Association, this prompted the government to attempt and win back the trust of Chinese consumers. He further stated that the allegations were unfounded and that the illegal activities were taking place in Cambodia and Myanmar, not Thailand.
Whatever the cause of the year's early disappointing visitor figures, Thailand's tourism sector is still anticipating a boom as Chinese tourists start to travel for the forthcoming holiday season.
"It might not be 100% yet, but it is improving. The travel agencies have prepared themselves, according to Sisdivachr.
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