Thailand has been seen as a cheerful place of water battles, lantern festivals, and great food for millions of Chinese tourists. However, thanks to social media rumors and a blockbuster film, the kingdom’s image among many Chinese people is now one of perilous illegality and filthy border compounds, resulting in a drop in visitor numbers.
Thailand relies heavily on tourism, mainly from China. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the country hosted more than 10 million Chinese visitors each year, a figure Bangkok is eager to see back.
However, viral social media claims that tourists may be kidnapped and forced to labor in horrific fraudulent complexes in Myanmar or Cambodia, have harmed its faltering tourism business.
Despite her parents’ displeasure, Chinese tourist Jia Xueqiong spent a week in Thailand with her husband and kid.
“They felt it wasn’t safe here, and tried to persuade us not to come,” the 44-year-old nurse said outside Bangkok’s unusually quiet Grand Palace.
“All of my friends said, ‘You go first to explore, and if it’s okay, we’ll follow,'” she explained.
Concerns among her family and friends were heightened by “No More Bets,” a high-octane thriller based on “true events” about a computer programmer who ends up in a violent scamming complex in Southeast Asia after being trafficked through an undisclosed nation that looks eerily similar to Thailand.
Scam Gangs Duping Citizens
The movie is based on true events in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. AFP and other media have documented thousands of Chinese citizens being enticed to Southeast Asian locations, primarily in Myanmar and Cambodia, to operate online scams that defraud victims for enormous sums.
However, most individuals involved are duped into it with false promises of lucrative work rather than being dragged off the streets while on vacation, and no such scam compounds have been discovered in Thailand thus far.
Despite its August release, “No More Bets” has become China’s third-most-popular film this year, grossing 3.8 billion yuan ($521 million) and igniting online debate on the perils of visiting Thailand.
Beijing student Leanna Qian, 22, said that even though she understood some of the stories were “exaggerated,” she was hesitant to visit the kingdom. “I’m afraid we’ll be taken to other countries, like Cambodia or Myanmar,” she said.
According to official data, Thailand received a record-breaking 11 million Chinese tourists in 2019 – a quarter of all visitors that year.
However, only 2.3 million Chinese tourists have visited Thailand since the beginning of 2023, and last week, the Thai government proposed temporary visa-free travel for Chinese visitors to revive the flow.
According to Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, the unfavorable online discussion was a factor in the reduction. “Things don’t happen in Thailand, but Thailand is a target,” he stated.
Tourist Safety in Thailand
Rumors first surfaced online in March and quickly spread, with posts shared and viewed millions of times. Whether it was safe to travel in Southeast Asia trended on Weibo.
The claims were so widespread that the Thai embassy in Beijing issued a statement early this year promising visitors that officials would “take measures to ensure tourists’ safety.”
Across the border, Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, told ThaiPBS that the situation was even worse. According to Chhay Sivlin, her company has not received any Chinese tour groups this year, and criticism has emphasized many travelers’ concerns about safety.
“If the Chinese government helps, we will receive tourists soon because Chinese people listen to their government,” she remarked.
In China, travel agents are shifting their attention away from foreign vacations, which accounted for more than 40% of their tourism earnings before the pandemic, and towards domestic tours.
Business is also feeling the effects of Beijing’s harsh COVID control tactics, which resulted in over 1.2 billion people being unable to leave China once its borders were closed in 2020.
Willingness to go abroad
According to Gary Bowerman, director of travel and tourism consultancy business Check-in Asia, it takes time for people to return to the habit of visiting abroad. “When you return to the country, you start hearing about these schemes… It affects people’s psychological willingness to go,” he said.
Meanwhile, domestic travel is rising, particularly among younger people who see it as a hip alternative to traveling abroad, according to Bowerman.
Staff at a Beijing-based travel business that declined to be recognized were pushing domestic holiday deals. The agency used to employ more than 200 individuals, but due to the worsening global economy, visa issues, and a slow aviation industry recovery, it has been reduced to a few dozen.
“There’s not much willingness to go abroad,” employee Guo, who requested to be identified only by one name, she said, “there’s also the fear that they might go but never return” for Southeast Asia.
Tourist Jia ignored the anxieties of many Chinese citizens as she stood outside Bangkok’s Grand Palace with her family. “It’s not like what people say on the internet about being scammed or other things,” she explained. “There is nothing like that at all.”