Thailand sees Chinese tourism soar as visa requirement dropped

Bangkok, Thailand – Bangkok’s Chinatown, lit up by red-lanterns and decorative banners to celebrate the Lunar New Year holidays, is bustling.

As the region welcomed the Year of the Dragon last weekend, ethnic Chinese Thais thronged temples to light candles and pray for good fortune.

Inside the glowing red interior of Wat Mangkon Kamalawat – the largest Chinese temple in Bangkok – women wore traditional cheongsam dresses and took photos with their loved ones.

Outside, in the hustle and bustle of Yaowarat Road, lion dancers performed as visitors – Thais and legions of tourists – crowded the street, sampling the food and shopping from stalls in the market.

Many were from China, with official figures showing hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals chose to spend the holiday, which began on February 10, in Thailand where they no longer need to get a visa.

“Destinations in Southeast Asia traditionally rely on a strong Lunar New Year holiday to kick-start the tourism calendar,” Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“Thailand has positioned itself astutely to capture outbound travel demand from China with its bilateral visa waiver and aggressive marketing into the Chinese market led by the prime minister. This resonates well with Chinese tourists and has encouraged Chinese airlines to add more capacity over [the] Chinese New Year.”

Lion dance in Bangkok. The lion is red
A lion dance on the streets of Bangkok [Tommy Walker/Al Jazeera]

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin started his push to lure more arrivals from China in September when he announced a temporary visa waiver for Chinese tourists. The short-term agreement soon became permanent after Thailand and China signed an indefinite mutual visa exemption for their nationals to visit each other’s country starting from March 1.

Nithee Seeprae, deputy governor for marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, says Chinese arrivals have been encouraging.

“It’s very exciting and [a] successful Chinese New Year, and it is a positive sign for the new visa waiver between China and Thailand because it brings more confidence for the Chinese tourists,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now we got 27-28,000 tourists [arriving each day] since the 1st of February, it is almost back to normal before Covid. Last year, at the same time, it was 7-8,000. Last month 500,000 [China visitors arrived].”

Thailand’s government spokesman Chai Wacharonke said on Saturday that four million tourists had arrived in the country from January 1 to February 8, including more than 730,000 Chinese.

Based on Nithee’s approximate figures, Chinese arrivals could reach one million by the end of the month.

“We have promotions with online travel agents, and [we] coordinate with normal travel agents to create a roadshow in the big cities in China. Also, the flights are back to 90 percent [capacity] like before the pandemic because of the visa waiving. We [are trying] to coordinate with influencers and key opinion leaders from China to create the content experience in Thailand,” he added.

More initiatives planned

Phuket, in southern Thailand, has seen an influx of arrivals in recent weeks.

Crowds along the streets in Bangkok, Chinese lanterns have been strung across the road
Yaowarat Road in Bangkok’s Chinatown is packed with food stalls and shops [Tommy Walker/Al Jazeera]

The island hotspot is expected to welcome 49,000 tourists a day through the international airport during the Chinese New Year period until February 16, according to local media.

The festival falls in the middle of Thailand’s high season, which usually runs from November to March, and is a major holiday for mainland China.

Ranjeet Viswanathan, the director of sales and marketing at the luxury Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort, said occupancy was even higher than many had hoped.

“This year has started with a bang. Every hotel has seen better-than-expected results in January and this continues in February. Our hotel has been doing over 92 percent in occupancy since January 1,” he told Al Jazeera.

Chinese tourists make up about 12 percent of the resort’s business and the number of travellers in 2024 so far is five percent higher than a year ago.

According to the Chinese calendar, 2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon, which can be a time for new ideas, projects and prosperity.

Chinese visitors have long been crucial to the Thai travel industry, but even with the jump in arrivals, the numbers remain well below 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In that year, Chinese visitors made up more than 11 million of the record 39 million tourists who visited Thailand.

Last year, there were more than 3.5 million Chinese arrivals, but that still fell short of the five million predicted by Thai officials.

Experts put the lower-than-expected numbers down to China’s own economic issues and domestic travel trends. The mass shooting in a Bangkok shopping mall in September that killed one Chinese national, and the release of the Chinese blockbuster movie No More Bets, a film depicting scams in Southeast Asia, may have also played a part.

Chinese tourists taking selfies with Thai PM Srettha Thavisin
The Thai government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has introduced visa-free travel for Chinese tourists [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

But the recent surge of Chinese visitors to Thailand shows China’s outbound travel is recovering, according to Bowerman, the tourism analyst.

“Strong demand for travel to Thailand from China in the first two months of 2024 suggests that this year will be very different for outbound travel from China compared to 2023,” he said.

Thai tourism officials have forecast more than eight million arrivals from China by the end of 2024.

The tourism authority’s Nithee is already working on luring more visitors from China and is in talks to arrange new flight routes from China into Thai cities including Udon Thani in the northeast and Hat Yai in the south. He is optimistic Thailand is on track to meet its arrivals target by the end of the year.

“It is really promising. We have to keep an eye on these situations and get more confidence for tourists and do more promotion,” he added.

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