A visa-free scheme for Chinese travellers would not immediately increase the market to 700,000 arrivals from the mainland per month because of concerns about safety and a slow resumption of flights, which are only half of the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.
Tourism operators in Phuket instead have high hopes for Kazakhstan, which is set to be granted visa-free arrivals from Sept 25, 2023 until Feb 29, 2024, as this market has high potential, according to travel agents.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said the seat capacity for Chinese flights in the final quarter is around 400,000 seats, which is 50% lower than the same period of 2019.
Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said it would be difficult to increase monthly Chinese arrivals to 700,000 to reach the government target of 5 million for this year as tourists must double from 350,000 per month now. Some 2.28 million arrivals from China were recorded between Jan 1 and Sept 10.
"We would appreciate a very swift decision on implementing a visa-free scheme to help the tourism market. However, with other challenges remaining, particularly the poor safety reputation of Thailand among Chinese netizens and insufficient flights, this policy alone is expected to boost the market by only 50%," he said.
With Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin set to visit China next month, Mr Sisdivachr said the government should use this opportunity to convince its Chinese counterpart about tourism cooperation, asking Beijing to help regulate fake news about Thailand that is rampant on Chinese social media.
He said the visa-free policy will more likely benefit individual travellers in the early weeks, while those travelling with tour groups have to wait for 1-2 months because tourism operators will not fully resume their package sales if they are uncertain about sufficient demand.
Moreover, as many Chinese citizens have encountered difficulties in applying for passports, this is another obstacle the Thai government cannot fix without help from Beijing, said Mr Sisdivachr.
A TAT executive who requested anonymity said a visa-free policy would have a limited impact if the number of airline seats does not expand from 400,000 seats in the final quarter.
The TAT is working with every airline to increase flights to China and push the load factor to 80-85% in the fourth quarter, up from the current 40%, said the executive.
NEW WAVE FOR PHUKET
In terms of Kazakh tourists, the TAT expects the number this year could reach a record high of 180,000-200,000.
Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, TAT deputy governor for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, said Kazakhstan is the fastest growing market for Thailand, with tourists travelling not only during winter, but also summer.
According to Phuket Airport Immigration, visitors from Kazakhstan grew by 580% to 76,421 during the first half of this year.
Tourists from Kazakhstan can only apply for a 30-day tourist visa, unlike Chinese travellers, who are eligible for visa on arrival, Mr Siripakorn said.
As of Sept 10, the number of Kazakh arrivals to Thailand this year was 108,636, up from 56,000 in 2019.
He said this market has high potential, with tourism spending of 4,365 baht per person per day and an average length of stay of 14 days.
Most visitors are couples and family groups, which are considered the upscale segment, said Mr Siripakorn.
"The visa-free scheme should entice Kazakh tourists to stay longer than usual, especially during the upcoming winter where airfares remain expensive," he said.
Scheduled flights between Thailand and Kazakhstan from October will be increased to 14 per week, divided equally between Bangkok and Phuket, said Mr Siripakorn.
Phuket is expected to have 10 more chartered flights weekly from first- and second-tier cities in Kazakhstan this winter, he said.
Mr Siripakorn said one obstacle is limited slots at Phuket airport, which prompted TAT to persuade some airlines to fly to Krabi airport instead.