Country gets set for China arrivals
Industry leaders are united in their belief that the visitors present an opportunity, not a risk
published : 9 Jan 2023 at 06:16
newspaper section: Business
writer: Post Reporters
When the Department of Disease Control announced on New Year's Eve that Thailand would no longer impose Covid-19 screening measures on Chinese visitors, the move quickly stirred a heated public debate.
Thailand and China have built close diplomatic relations over a half-century, while significant spending of 531 billion baht from more than 10 million Chinese visitors in 2019 was cited as one major reason why the Thai government opted to take a lenient position.
The tourism industry applauded the decision as arrivals rebounded to 11.8 million last year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), although this is still far fewer than the 39.8 million recorded in 2019.
Most Southeast Asian nations, including Singapore and Malaysia, chose not to adjust their entry policies regarding arrivals from China.
As of Sunday, Beijing no longer requires mandatory quarantine, having imposed draconian Covid-19 measures for almost three years.
However, the Thai authorities announced all visitors to Thailand must show proof of at least two Covid-19 vaccinations under revised rules that coincide with the revival of travel from China, as reported in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.
The government declared on Thursday visitors to Thailand from countries that still require an RT-PCR test upon their return, including China, are required to purchase insurance with sufficient coverage for their medical expenses during their visit to the country.
More than 300,000 Chinese nationals are expected to travel to Thailand in this year's first quarter. Some business sectors have high hopes for the resumption of the Chinese market over the long run.
With looming fears of a new wave of Covid-19, the government plans to allay public concerns by introducing well-prepared health measures to lessen risks, while still supporting an economic recovery.
Arrivals make their way along a moving walkway at Suvarnabhumi airport. Somchai Poomlard
RESTORATION OF CALM
The revival of travel from China should not add any serious new public health concerns because Thailand has adapted to the Covid-19 endemic and the arrival of millions of tourists from other countries, said Chalerm Harnphanich, president of the Private Hospital Association Thailand.
People know about the virus, having lived with it for three years, so they need not be concerned for the return of Chinese visitors, he said.
Though the highly contagious virus can mutate, so far the mutations have tended to be less virulent strains, said Dr Chalerm.
He said he believes Thailand can deal with the risk of possible imported cases of Covid-19 following Beijing's decision to reopen China's borders.
Thailand's experience welcoming 11.8 million foreign arrivals last year shows the country can handle the public health risks associated with reopening, Dr Chalerm said.
Thai authorities also discussed revised travel rules on Jan 5, which apply to all foreign visitors.
"I believe there will be no problems following the arrival of Chinese tourists," he said.
Roughly 5 million Chinese tourists are anticipated to visit Thailand this year.
China's embassy in Thailand is planning to conduct RT-PCR Covid-19 testing for its citizens for their return trip to China.
The Private Hospital Association Thailand, with 400 member hospitals countrywide, is able to facilitate testing, which would be offered for 1,500 baht per person, said Dr Chalerm.
"The association initially planned to have six hospitals provide the service following talks between Thai and Chinese authorities," he said.
"Now we have agreed to offer testing at any hospital that is convenient for Chinese tourists."
If a foreign tourist is infected with Covid-19 during their stay in Thailand, private hospitals are always ready to provide treatment, said Dr Chalerm.
More Covid cases could be beneficial for the medical sector's bottom line, he said.
Dr Chalerm said Thailand must ensure every tourist from every country is treated equally.
"We must welcome and treat them under a single standard. Any discrimination will only lead to problems," he said.
Thanawan Kulmongkol, president of the Thai Restaurant Association, said the group alerted all its members, but particularly restaurateurs in popular cities for Chinese tourists, such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai, to prepare for an influx of Chinese visitors now that they are permitted to travel overseas again.
"We are not particularly worried about the entry of Chinese tourists because we have already learned many preventive measures, particularly SHA [Safety and Health Administration] measures. We used SHA rules since September of last year and if everybody strictly follows them, we believe we can manage," said Mrs Thanawan.
"We think a flood of Chinese tourists offers opportunity rather than risk."
She said although Thailand was fully opened since July, many Thai restaurants, particularly those in major tourist destinations, remained closed because of the major impact of the pandemic in recent years.
Thanet Phetsuwan, TAT's deputy governor of marketing for Asia and South Pacific, said Chinese visitors would not flood into the country during the first few months of the year because the total number of seats on flights from China is only 72,000 this month.
Mr Thanet said the situation should improve in March as the number of Chinese arrivals could reach 150,000, while the target for the whole year is set at 5 million, generating 250 billion baht or around 40% of the amount generated in 2019.
He said the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) reported more airlines are asking for slots at Suvarnabhumi airport over the next few months.
While the average roundtrip airfare from China remains high at around 50,000 baht, Mr Thanet said tourists who plan to travel would not see this as an obstacle.
He said the mandatory Covid-19 insurance that is now required to visit Thailand should not prove to be a problem as the premium rate costs only 900 baht for 200,000 baht in coverage.
Mr Thanet said most Southeast Asian countries took a similar stance towards Chinese visitors because they know the group can account for up to 30% of their inbound market.
He said the decision to reopen Thailand came much earlier than anticipated, which prompted the country to quickly prepare healthcare services and a vaccination drive. Healthcare services and vaccination may be in great demand from Chinese visitors, said Mr Thanet.
Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA), said Thailand should not impose any entry rule that could be perceived as being discriminatory against specific countries, particularly when medical experts in China have already helped confirm the dominant variants.
THA hopes each hotel will apply the same standard of service to all guests, without requiring additional screening measures at their properties, particularly for specific nationalities, she said.
Mrs Marisa said hotels should require their employees wear a mask to protect themselves and strictly follow SHA regulations, in line with the certification they obtained from the administration.
Suksit Suvunditkul, president of the southern chapter of the THA, said the group estimates Phuket will record a strong recovery for Chinese arrivals in the second half, reaching around 1 million by the end of this year.
He said some Chinese travel agents have started to ask hotels in Phuket for allotment contracts, but no confirmed bookings of this kind had been made yet.
PLENTY OF DEMAND
Hotels in Phuket are packed thanks to first-quarter bookings from major markets such as Russia, India, Singapore, Australia, the UK, and other European countries, said Mr Suksit.
In 2019, the Chinese market accounted for around 30% or 3.1 million of the 9.6 million foreign visitors to Phuket.
With the prospect of more Chinese tourists on the horizon, hotels will need to accelerate their hiring efforts to take on a huge volume of staff to plug the existing shortage, he said.
The hotels also need to provide them with basic training in Mandarin, said Mr Suksit.
Specifically, hotels need to recruit more spa therapists as these services are popular with Chinese tourists, he said.
Hotels are required to provide accommodation in-house for spa therapists as most need to relocate to Phuket from other provinces, mainly in the Northeast.
"There are only about 2,000 spa therapists left, a decrease from almost 10,000 before Covid-19," said Mr Suksit.
He said the Covid insurance requirement would help ease public concerns about Covid-19 infections to some extent.
The government should focus on independent travellers from China rather than tour groups as these visitors tend to distribute income to wider areas than those visiting in groups, said Mr Suksit.
Tourists make merit at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok on New Year's Day. Pornprom Satrabhaya
CHAOS ON THE GROUND
CAAT office director Suthipong Kongpool said there are a number of slots available for airlines wishing to add flights at Suvarnabhumi airport, including for routes serving Chinese cities.
There are 15 flights per day from China operating at present, transporting around 3,000 passengers per day to three airports: Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai.
However, aviation regulations require all airlines to secure ground handling services before operating at any destination in the country. This has led to some difficulties in airlines trying to meet demand, he said.
For example, Suvarnabhumi airport is struggling with a labour shortage as only two ground handling operators have been allowed to serve the airport, said Mr Suthipong.
He said CAAT must follow the rules, even if airlines want immediate permission to operate without a guarantee of ground handling services, as this could affect passengers on arrival.
"CAAT wants to facilitate all airlines that require additional slots at Suvarnabhumi, but there is limited capacity in terms of ground handling services," said Mr Suthipong.
"The government is working on the problem and the authority expects a better outlook in the near future."
He said CAAT is trying to convince Chinese airlines to fly directly to alternative airports near key tourism destinations, such as Don Mueang airport in Bangkok or U-tapao airport in Chon Buri.
Another tactic is to persuade them to change their designation to Chiang Mai or Ubon Ratchathani, said Mr Suthipong.
Phuket airport is close to reaching its full capacity as its runways are closed for maintenance after midnight.
He said the country's airports were equipped to receive 530,000 international flights and 540,000 domestic flights in total before the pandemic.
MORE GOOD THAN HARM
Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, perceives China's reopening as having a direct benefit for the Thai economy, reflected by the level of enthusiasm in the tourism and service sectors to accommodate the return of Chinese visitors.
Mr Sanan said given his past experience, he believes tourism businesses and related sectors will have already put in place safety measures to prevent fresh outbreaks of Covid-19.
The government has rolled out health and safety standards, such as the SHA and SHA Plus, to build the confidence and trust of international tourists, he said.
Entrepreneurs are fully ready to welcome all foreign tourists as the majority of Thais have received a double dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, said Mr Sanan.
The public health system, in terms of hospitals, hospital beds and the provision of vaccines, is also ready to cope with any new outbreak of infections, he said.
"China is believed to have exercised some effective measures to build up the confidence of their residents before they leave the mainland," said Mr Sanan.
"Thais should not worry too much about a possible flood of Chinese tourists as the Public Health Ministry, TAT and related agencies have already discussed this matter and worked out contingency plans to cope with any new infections," he said.
A BOON FOR TELECOM
Somchai Lertsutiwong, chief executive of Advanced Info Service (AIS), the country's largest mobile operator by subscriber base, believes the company should benefit from China's reopening as a huge number of Chinese arrivals would generate revenue via international roaming services.
Revenue from international roaming services generally generates 3-4 billion baht for AIS, or 4% of the firm's total annual revenue, he said.
Earnings from international roaming services declined markedly over the past few years because of the pandemic, said Mr Somchai.
He said the telecom sector is projected to enjoy an improved outlook this year as Thailand's major economic drivers are tourism and exports.
"A good signal was recorded in late December and it is expected to become clearer this year," said Mr Somchai.
He said no specific plans have been created to deal with the anticipated influx of Chinese tourists this year as the firm already has the capacity required to serve this demand, including call centre staff who are able to speak several foreign languages.
In addition, interactions between customers and AIS are carried out on various digital platforms and automatic systems, said Mr Somchai.