China lifted strict travel restrictions more than eight months ago, but the number of visitors to Thailand still lags the previous pace.
As of Sept 10, Chinese arrivals tallied 2.28 million for the year. The estimate for Chinese visitors this year is a range of 4-4.4 million, falling short of the initial target of 5 million set earlier.
The sluggish Chinese economy could be one reason for the weaker flow of tourists, but tour agents and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which has five offices spanning the mainland, they believe there are other reasons for dip in arrivals.
In 2021 when China's borders were sealed, visitors to Thailand from the mainland declined by 99% from roughly 10 million in 2019.
Tourist confidence about safety is regarded as the most important factor in terms of why Chinese hesitate to book trips to Thailand, according to tourism officials.
The Thai cabinet recently approved a visa exemption for Chinese nationals for five months, covering both the National Day holiday in October and the Chinese New Year in February next year. Yet tourism analysts still predict a hesitant Chinese market, even with the visa measure.
Q: WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND OF CHINESE TOURISM IN THAILAND?
According to a TAT analysis, the slow growth can be attributed to four reasons: a weak economy and currency, the Chinese government's domestic tourism promotions and upgrade of local transport, an insufficient supply side and higher living cost in Thailand, and negative news about safety that is damaging the image of Thailand.
Both tour operators and the TAT single out concerns about safety as the most critical factor.
The Chinese tourism boom years occurred when the country was buoyed by the commercial success of a Chinese movie.
In 2012, the comedy film Lost in Thailand prompted Chinese travellers to flock to Chiang Mai, the main location for the box office smash, making the province the main destination for visitors from the mainland.
Chinese arrivals almost tripled from 1.7 million in 2011 to 4.6 million in 2013, then continued to grow from 2013.
Many visitors from the nation with a massive population of more than 1.3 billion were from the provinces, opting for Thailand as their first overseas destination. The contribution from this portion of the market led to the expansion of TAT offices in China beyond Beijing and Shanghai.
This environment created a golden age for tour agencies as many first-time travellers opted for competitively priced tour packages. Chinese tourists flooded into Thailand, but the country was also plagued by "zero-dollar tours" that harmed the sector's reputation because of the poor quality of service.
Despite negative news reports about the zero-dollar tours and a deadly boat accident in Phuket in 2018 where at least 46 Chinese tourists died, travel demand to Thailand among Chinese remained consistent in the years before the pandemic.
Q: WHY ARE THERE FEWER CHINESE VISITORS TO THAILAND THAN EXPECTED?
This year Chinese tourism to Thailand was again affected by a movie, but this time it had a negative impact.
The thriller No More Bets shook tourism sentiment in the mainland with a story based on real cases of scammer networks in Southeast Asia.
Chinese are worried about their safety while travelling to this region, and Thailand is no exception.
In addition, Chinese have been posting on social media about safety concerns during travel in Thailand since the beginning of this year.
Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (Atta), said comments on Chinese social media widely circulated warning about abduction and scams targeting Chinese in Thailand. Many times these accounts were mixed with fake news, said Mr Sisdivachr.
People in rural Chinese areas who were the main customer group for the Thai tourism industry in the past believed these social media posts, he said, becoming hesitant about choosing Thailand as a destination after the nation opened its borders following the pandemic.
Mr Sisdivachr said the Chinese are extremely sensitive to content spreading on social media and tend to believe these stories.
He said while a weak economy will undoubtedly limit the number of Chinese willing to spend abroad, few criminal cases occurred in Thailand the past few months involving Chinese tourists.
The greatest obstacle for the tourism industry is to erase this negative perception of travel safety in Thailand, said Mr Sisdivachr, regardless of whether the Chinese economy rebounds or visitors receive visa exemptions.
Q: WILL THE VISA EXEMPTION HELP REVIVE THE MARKET?
According to Atta, an official statement from the government to assure tourists about safety is essential. He said the government should roll out a plan to restore confidence along with the visa exemption to effectively boost the market.
The private sector is also hoping the visit of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to Beijing from Oct 7-9 will help turn the page.
However, Mr Sisdivachr said any verbal or written commitment would be meaningless if there's not action to reduce crime in Thailand and eliminate negative content on Chinese social media.
The government acknowledged this problem with the Chinese market as both Mr Srettha and Tourism and Sports Minister Sudawan Wangsuphakijkosol said they will use social media to ease negative perceptions about travel safety in Thailand.
Films, online content and key opinion leaders could be employed to fight rumours about Thai travel safety during the five-month visa exemption, according to the administration.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, TAT governor, said the agency continues to promote Thailand to the Chinese using three themes: convenience and safety, worthwhile, and experience.
Instead of focusing on mass tour groups as in the past, the new target is "quality tourists" with high spending averaging 51,415 baht per person per trip, according to TAT.
With the visa exemption, revenue from the Chinese market is estimated at 258 billion baht this year from an estimated 4-4.4 million tourists, said the agency.
During the five-month visa exemption, an estimated 1.9-2.8 million Chinese travellers are expected to create revenue of 92-140 billion baht.
Mr Srettha insisted during his recent visit to Chiang Mai airport the government has assigned police and the Immigration Bureau to strengthen safety measures for tourists, protecting the country from shady businesses that might exploit the visa-free policy.
"We are exempting only visas, not changing the blacklist for illegal businesses," he said.
According to TAT, Thailand also plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Cultural Ministry of China and Tourism Authority in China to prevent illegal businesses and strictly regulate tourism to ensure safety.