Foreign tourists were once the mainstay of Thailand's economy, contributing up to 1.76 trillion baht to the economy before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, or about 12% of the nation's gross domestic product.
Chinese tourists accounted for about 11 million out of the 40 million or so visitors who visited Thailand each year before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on international travel.
Lately, in a bid to reignite Thailand's tourism industry, the government launched a visa exemption programme that specifically targets tourists from China, as well as Kazakhstan.
The programme, which began on Sept 25, will run until February next year, but the latest figures suggest the scheme has not resulted in the surge of visitors from China that was anticipated.
As of mid-November, Thailand has welcomed 23.24 million foreign visitors, only 2.9 million of whom are from mainland China, according to Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The figure has disappointed the government, which anticipated a surge in Chinese visitors because of the scheme. In fact, on Friday TAT lowered its projection for the number of Chinese visitors this year, down from 5-7 million to about 3.4-3.5 million, which is quite a drop.
Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, TAT's deputy governor for international marketing in Asia and South Pacific, blamed the lacklustre figures on China's sluggish economic recovery and its pivot to promoting domestic tourism. That said, he remained confident the number of Chinese visitors could reach 8.3 million next year.
While China's economic performance and domestic tourism promotion policy are beyond the Thai government's control, there are several factors dissuading Chinese tourists from visiting Thailand that require immediate attention from the government -- chief among which is Thailand's image as a safe destination.
The recent shooting at Siam Paragon, which injured four and resulted in the deaths of three people, including a Chinese tourist, has damaged tourists' confidence in Thailand's safety. Crackdowns on illegal Chinese businesses and criminal syndicates in the country have also distorted Thailand's image in the eyes of Chinese visitors.
Such fear is reflected in recent media reports, including one by the South China Morning Post, which claimed many Chinese tourists are avoiding Thailand due to fears over their safety -- fears which are further exacerbated by a TV crime series depicting the kidnapping of Chinese nationals in a nondescript Southeast Asian location which many say resembles Thailand.
These narratives, which often include allegations of human trafficking and organ trading, are amplified by social media, undermining efforts to draw tourists into the country. The government must act to rectify the prevailing negative image of Thailand among foreign visitors, for the visa exemption programme won't be effective as long as tourists are concerned about their safety and security.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Apec Summit in San Fransisco recently, where he congratulated Mr Xi on China's victory at the World Cup qualifiers. It is uncertain whether he made use of the opportunity to seek the Chinese president's support in improving Thailand's image as a tourist destination. Football can indeed serve as a unifying factor, but it would be regrettable if this chance to attract support for a critical national issue was overlooked.