Thailand gives royal treatment to first visa-free Chinese tourists

Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin personally greeted the first batch of Chinese visa-free tourists as they touched down in Bangkok on Monday – the first day of Thailand’s new visa waiver for Chinese nationals, which is set to stay in place until February.

In what major outlets have been calling a “VIP welcome”, a huge fanfare was drummed up for the 300 or so Chinese visitors arriving from Shanghai. Dancers in traditional Thai costume and puppeteers were on standby to greet the new arrivals, many of whom stopped to snatch selfies with Prime Minister Thavisin amid hordes of reporters and onlookers.

Just last week, Thailand announced a five-month visa exemption for Chinese and Kazakh nationals that will last from September 25 to February 29, 2024. Previously Chinese tourists had to apply for a visa on arrival and were restricted to a 15-day stay. Searches for tours in Thailand surged 800% on within half an hour of the news breaking, and searches for flights to Thailand increased 70% week-on-week on Chinese online travel agency Qunar.

“The program hit the spot, as the time period covers two major long holidays for Chinese people — the eight-day Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day holiday in early October, and the Spring Festival holiday in late January. The visa waiver program will strongly stimulate Chinese people to travel to Thailand in the next five months,” Xu Xiaolei, chief brand officer of a Beijing-based tour operator, told China Daily.

Thailand’s tourism authority said the move will bring in an extra 700,000 tourists, with the government betting on reaching 5 million Chinese tourists this year – with 446 billion THB (13.2 billion USD) in spending expected along with them.

“We are confident this policy will stimulate the economy,” Prime Miniter Thavisin told reporters at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok as the Chinese visitors arrived on Monday. The government plans to promote smaller cities to encourage them to stay longer and spend more.

Prior to the pandemic, China was the biggest source of tourists for Thailand, making up 11 million out of 39.9 million tourists that visited the country in 2019 – well over double the number coming from the second biggest source, Malaysia.

From 2020 to 2022, the proportion of Chinese tourists tumbled from 27.9% to 2.6% as China’s draconian zero-covid policy required inbound travellers to undergo a lengthy and strictly-enforced quarantine, which strongly discouraged international travel throughout the three-year period. Overall spending by all tourists in Thailand had plummeted a devastating 99% by 2021.

“The recovery of tourism remains clear, although spending may not be as much as expected,” Bank of Thailand Governor Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput said earlier this month.

Faltering consumer demand in China this year has significantly impacted Thailand as China remains its largest trading partner. With tourism accounting for about 12% of the country’s GDP, the Thai government is cautiously optimistic that the new visa waiver for Chinese passport holders will provide a much-needed boost to Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.


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