This year could prove a disappointment not only for inbound tourism, with a weaker recovery than expected, but also for outbound tourism as only 60-70% of the total of Thais that travelled overseas in 2019 are slated to do so in 2023.
Weighed down by household debt, high living costs and a downturn in the stock market, most Thais prefer to save money instead of spending on outbound trips, which are typically costlier than domestic trips, said Chotechuang Soorangura, vice-president of the Thai Travel Agents Association.
He said the outbound market as of the third quarter tallied 5 million, less than half of the 10.4 million posted in 2019, according to the Tourism and Sports Ministry's report.
If the amount picks up in the final month, the maximum could be 7 million outbound Thais this year, said Mr Chotechuang.
The outbound market following the pandemic is largely restricted to those who can afford the higher prices triggered by an uptick in airfares and inflation in many destinations.
The trend has affected the middle class more than last year, especially with the Stock Exchange of Thailand tanking this year, he said.
Though some people were not directly impacted by the slow economy, the overall negative sentiment from a high level of household debt and slow GDP growth had psychological consequences on their decisions, said Mr Chotechuang.
"The lead time for trip bookings has shrunk to less than a month, down from 1-2 months, for countries without visa requirements. For instance, for the upcoming New Year period trips were booked in the first week of December," he said.
"People are reluctant to spend on travel as they remember hardships from the three-year pandemic."
Mr Chotechuang said the slow flight resumption also contributed to the tourism slowdown as limited capacity drove up travel costs for destinations popular among Thai tourists.
For example, fares for direct flights to Japan with full-service airlines during New Year have surged to 40,000 baht, while fares with low-cost carriers start from 33,000 baht, almost as expensive as European destinations.
According to the International Air Transport Association, passenger traffic for most regions is anticipated to exceed levels in 2019, except in Asia-Pacific, which is projected to recover by 92% of the pre-pandemic level as traffic from China plummeted to 40% of the previous benchmark.
He said the impact has been felt across all segments, as retirees who normally take one outbound trip per quarter have reduced their travel to two trips per year.
Soaring airfares have caused them to opt for longer stays during each trip instead, said Mr Chotechuang.
Even though South Korean tourism this year was momentarily rocked by Thai online protests over stringent entry measures, the outbound market to this country remained robust because it was half the price of trips to Japan.
He said rising airfares and accommodation prices in Japan could cost tourists up to 60,000 baht for each trip.
In addition to individual tourists pivoting to cheaper destinations, corporate clients this year have asked tour companies to arrange incentive programmes with a more limited budget, said Mr Chotechuang.
Outbound packages to South Korea can cater to this demand as companies can restrict their budget to around 30,000 baht per person, he said.
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of Thais visiting Japan tallied 755,700 as of October, 25.5% lower than the corresponding period in 2019.
Mr Chotechuang said Japan might remain the most popular destination for Thai tourists in 2023 thanks to the weak yen, but the growth rate would be smaller than regional options with healthier economies, such as Vietnam and Singapore, which posted gains of 20% and 16%, respectively.
"The Thai economy is not in good shape compared with those regional neighbours, which greatly affected outbound tourism this year," he said.
"The slow recovery will continue, with no more than 10 million trips anticipated for next year."