Phuket: Chinese tourists are expected to flock to this resort island from the end of this week as China celebrates two holidays and as the visa-free scheme for Chinese continues.
Expectations are also high for Chinese New Year, which heralds the Year of the Dragon, next February.
According to Phuket Tourism Association (PTA) president Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, the current level of tourism -- including domestic visitors and international arrivals -- is equivalent to 68% of the pre-pandemic level.
About 13 million tourists visited Phuket in 2019, including 3.1 million Chinese tourists. This compares to around 900,000 Chinese visitors this year so far, he said.
The visa-free scheme, which kicked off on Monday for Chinese and Kazakh nationals, is tipped to boost that number to 1.7 million Chinese this year, he said. The scheme will run until Feb 29.
The number of Chinese tourists in Phuket will match the pre-pandemic level within two years, said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, chief adviser to the PTA.
He said some Chinese tour agencies have shared their concerns that the delays China is currently experiencing in processing or renewing its citizens' passports could curb the tourist influx in the short term, as so many people are scrambling to holiday overseas.
In addition, China is facing an economic slowdown that is also dissuading many from travelling abroad, he said.
Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said the TAT expects the visa-free scheme will help Thailand achieve its target of 5 million Chinese this year. The country has welcomed about 2.4 million as of this week.
Kazakhstani tourists are also eligible for the 30-day visa exemption. They are a high-end market who generally come to Thailand as families or couples, Mr Siripakorn said, adding they spend about 20 days here on average per trip.
Lt Chatchawan Sakornsin, Thailand's ambassador to Kazakhstan, said the scheme has already positively impacted tourists from the country, with the number of those visiting Thailand expected to jump from 60,000 to 150,000 a year.
Phuket is a popular destination for Kazakhstani tourists, especially during the winter. Many are attracted by its cultural offerings, such as muay Thai bouts and the island's world-class beaches, added Lt Chatchawan.