Thai hotels are preparing for another slump in bookings as the Chinese government's ban on outbound group tours inconveniences independent travellers, a segment that makes up 60% of all Chinese visitors to Thailand.
Another collapse in travellers may come from the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (Mice) segment, which draws a large portion of revenue from overseas participants.
In a meeting with the private sector on Tuesday, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) will seek to devise a plan for the domestic market. Some operators are urging the government to order all state agencies to spend their budget to conduct countrywide meetings so that attendees fill hotels and provide assistance to the hospitality sector.
Supawan Tanomkieatipume, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), said that before the outbreak Thailand's hotels averaged 50% occupancy. Of this, the share of Chinese guests was as high as 50% as the peak season for this market got under way.
The THA expects advance bookings for February to plunge 30% as the health emergency's impact spreads to independent travellers and incentive groups.
"The impact was felt across the country, as Chinese guests are the main source market for most hotels," Ms Supawan said. "Usually the occupancy in February would be strengthened by incentive groups, but this market is uncertain too."
She said the outbreak will stir up psychological effects for travellers who will not be confident about venturing beyond their hometowns. The THA expects the setback to last at least three months.
A source from the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau said the agency is still waiting for confirmation from three incentive groups from China totalling 5,500 travellers who may cancel trips.
Vichit Prakobgosol, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (Atta), said that from Feb 5 onwards independent travellers will stop coming to Thailand, even though the Chinese government has not interfered with their decision.
"The Chinese are worried about the epidemic and in general they adhere to authorities' directions strictly," he said. "As sales activities have been halted since last week, bookings via agents stopped too."
He said the remedy to the crisis should be divided into three phases. The priority task is surveillance operations to make sure the country is clear from viral panic.
After the outbreak dies down, the next phase is financial solutions for the private sector and marketing campaigns to revive international revenue.
Atta vice-president Surawat Akaraworamat said independent travellers are affected by inconvenient transport: at least 10 cities in China are closed down and people cannot afford to find public buses to carry them to or from the airport.
Mr Surawat said the tourism business also has to resolve financial issues that are looming, as flights and hotels were already booked in advance.
If the packages were cancelled but hotels and airlines don't make refunds, tour companies have to bear the costs.
Thanapol Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA), said the group asked 15 airlines to attend a meeting this week to address refund policies.
He said almost all bookings by Thai guests to China have been cancelled, resulting in at least a 500-million-baht loss.
The last groups will finish touring activities and return to Thailand by Feb 5.
"We would like to seek cooperation from airlines, especially low-cost carriers in Thailand," Mr Thanapol said. "If this issue cannot be solved, we might need the government to help relieve our financial pressure, which will be critical over the next two months, by providing soft loans to tour companies."
The TTAA forecasts the outbound market to grow by 11.5 million bookings this year. Of the amount, there are 700,000-800,000 bookings for China expected.
To keep the Songkran market alive, outbound tour operators need to shift sales to European destinations, Mr Thanapol said, as tourists tend to choose countries that are less impacted by the virus.
Cheaper tour packages to Western countries as a result of the baht's strength provide greater options for Thai tourists.
Hoteliers in Phuket have been directly affected by the Chinese government's suspension of outbound tour groups, as 80% of Chinese tourists travel in these groups, says Suksit Suvunditkul, chief executive of Deevana Hotels and Resorts and vice-president of the Thai Hotels Association.
Hotels in beach locations popular among independent Chinese tourists have been mildly affected by the booking cancellations.
Mr Suksit said hotels near beaches draw from a diverse array of markets, including India, Australia, Russia and other European countries, while Chinese tourist numbers have slowed since the boat accident in 2018 that killed scores of Chinese nationals.
If the situation lingers until the beginning of the low season around the end of March, the overall tourism situation in Phuket could deteriorate, he said.