While China offers visa exemptions to visitors from Malaysia and European nations but not Thailand, tourism operators have suggested changing strategies by selling combined tour packages to two destinations -- Thailand and Malaysia -- in a bid to attract Chinese tourists.
Songchai Mungprasithichai, president of Songkhla Tourism Promotion Association, said since Hat Yai airport now has direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, the government should use this opportunity to promote combined trips with Malaysia as Chinese tourists can enter both countries without a visa requirement.
He said this strategy would encourage tourists to visit Songkhla, which is heavily reliant on Malaysian visitors and is attracting only a small portion of tourists from Singapore and Indonesia at present.
The local authorities should consider developing new attractions in Songkhla to create other unique selling points, in addition to the food culture that attracts foreign tourists on weekends, said Mr Songchai.
He said Thailand offers more advantages than Malaysia in terms of offering diverse attractions, while the country's well-known hospitality is another boon.
As Chinese and other foreign tourists are mostly looking for recreational activities that are free, such as wearing a bikini on the beach or consuming alcohol, they can do these in Thailand without restrictions, unlike some destinations in Muslim countries, said Mr Songchai.
In 2019, Thailand welcomed around 11 million Chinese tourists, while Malaysia attracted more than 3.1 million visitors from China.
Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (Atta), said it was not a surprise to see Beijing grant the privilege to Malaysians before Thais, as Malaysia has a higher GDP per person, meaning a greater level of potential spending when visiting China.
He said Malaysia typically accounts for a large number of outbound trips to China, especially Malaysians with Chinese ancestry.
More than 1.3 million Malaysians visited China in 2019, compared with 870,000 Thais.
However, Mr Adith said tour agents in China have not reported a shift from Thailand to Malaysia, as the visa-free policy was only announced recently.
He also backed the idea of tourism operators in Songkhla combining two destinations in a single package.
Langkawi combined with Koh Lipe and Penang combined with Betong could serve as pilot routes, said Mr Adith.
Following the visa exemption granted to Chinese nationals two months ago, Atta reported a 30% surge in outbound bookings from China, mainly driven by incentive trips, he said.
Next month, the association plans to conduct two roadshows in Shanghai and Chengdu to refresh and restore the tour group segment, particularly among people residing in second-tier cities who would like to visit Thailand for the first time, said Mr Adith.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry made a statement on Tuesday that China's visa exemption for Malaysians would not affect Thai tourism as the policy should benefit mostly trade visitors rather than tourists.