Thailand’s tourism bureau estimates nearly 1.5 million fewer visitors from China in 2023 than had originally been expected at the beginning of the year. Changing travel trends and economic problems in China are to blame. Chinese tourist arrivals in Thailand are set to be lower than forecast in 2023, according to estimates by the Thai tourism bureau. Thailand had expected a bump in tourist arrivals from China following the reopening of borders after the coronavirus pandemic. The tourism bureau initially predicted 5 million visitors from China in 2023. However, arrivals from China before December numbered around 3 million, and the year-end total is now estimated to be around 3.5 million visitors.
Changing trends in Chinese tourism
Vincent Zhuang, a journalist from China and former editor at the Robb Report, a luxury-lifestyle magazine, said Chinese travel trends are changing. “The Chinese tourist has changed a lot,” Zhuang told DW. He added that Chinese tourists are traveling more domestically as air fares and hotel prices remain high elsewhere in Asia. “There are many choices in China both for luxury and economy tourists,” he said.
China’s economic problems, which includes a real estate crisis, a worsening job market and record-high youth unemployment, also contribute to people thinking twice about traveling overseas. With spending power being reduced, the number of international flights connecting China to Thailand is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, officials say.
Chinatown in Bangkok is a hot spot for international tourists, with bustling food stalls, authentic Chinese dishes, and bright neon-lit signs. Masses of tourists from mainland China are often seen in group tours roaming these streets. However, shop owners and market vendors in Bangkok’s Chinatown told DW that the number of Chinese tourists this year is lower than before. In another popular tourist location, the island of Phuket in southern Thailand, hotel bookings from China are also lower than anticipated.
“China pre-pandemic used to be one of our top countries … I think almost 18% to 20% of our business was coming from China, heavily dependent on tour groups,” said Ranjeet Viswanathan, director of sales & marketing at the Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort. “But right now, China makes up for about 5% of my business,” he told DW.
Thailand’s image problem in China?
In a shooting at the Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok in September, three people were killed including one Chinese national. The news of the shooting led to around 60,000 Chinese tourists canceling their trips to Thailand, according to Thai officials. And the Chinese blockbuster movie “No More Bets,” which was released in August, did not paint Thailand in a positive light.
The movie tells the story of Chinese citizens who are tricked into taking a work trip overseas only to be forced into operating illegal gambling and cryptocurrency scams in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. But indirect references to Thailand are present in the film, such as one scene showing a road sign named “Sukhumvit,” which is a well-known district in Bangkok. The movie was seen as a reminder of incessant telecom scams in China.
Thailand works on attracting Chinese tourists
Nithee Seeprae, deputy governor at the Tourism Authority of Thailand admitted more work needs to be done to show that Thailand welcomes Chinese arrivals. “According to our travel partners in China, tourists still trust in Thailand as a safe destination. But maybe we’ll have to coordinate with Chinese influencers, and the Chinese influencer network in Thailand,” he told DW. The Thai government has also tried to make it easier for Chinese visitors to enter Thailand.
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced in September that Chinese tourists can enter Thailand from mainland China for 30 days, without requiring a visa up until the end of February. “The measure is long overdue if Thailand wants to attract more Chinese visitors,” said Gary Bowerman, an Asia tourism analyst based in Malaysia.
It’s clear Thailand is trying desperately hard to re-coup the benefits of Chinese tourism, which has been a boost to its economy. Thailand’s tourist economy accounted for 11.5% of the country’s overall GDP in 2019. Of the record 39 million foreign arrivals that year, over 11 million were Chinese visitors. But following the pandemic in 2022, Thailand welcomed just 11 million international visitors, with China only accounting for 273,567 of those arrivals.
With 3.5 million Chinese arrivals estimated to visit for 2023, Thai officials have predicted a stronger recovery from the Chinese market, forecasting over double the amount to over 8 million arrivals in 2024. However, Bowerman told DW that existing factors this year could still contribute to obstacles for Chinese tourism to return to previous levels next year.
This year “has proved to be a very tricky year to forecast Chinese outbound demand for Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand,” he said. “Thailand will be hoping for more stable and predictable demand patterns for Chinese arrivals, and overall growth is expected in 2024,” he added. “However, forecasting a precise figure at the moment, with airlines nervous about adding back capacity, is a bit like waving your finger in the wind,” said tourism analyst Bowerman.