Thailand’s celebrated tourism business is missing its most important customers: the Chinese. Thailand had great hopes when China eased Covid restrictions. It predicted a spike in business that would help the tourism industry regain most of what it had lost during the Covid pandemic.
The administration expected that up to five million Chinese tourists will visit the country by the end of the year. However, that hopeful scenario is considerably too optimistic.
In the first nine months of 2023, little fewer than 2.5 million Chinese visitors visited Thailand, a far cry from the over 11 million who visited in 2019, but a significant gain over the previous year, when there were only 270,000.
“Our tourism ministry said visitor numbers would quickly recover after the pandemic,” Anucha Liangruangreongkit, a Chinese-speaking tour guide at Bangkok’s Grand Palace for 42 years told the BBC.
“But they’re just dreaming.” I’m a tour guide, so I should know. If things were normal, as in the past, it would be crowded, right? Take a look at it right now. Is there a large crowd here? No.”
Part of the difficulty is a lack of low-cost flights following Covid, as well as a declining Chinese economy. The new Thai Government thought that by announcing a five-month visa waiver, it would attract more tourists.
However, a shooting at Bangkok’s most famous shopping mall on 3 October, which murdered a Chinese mother of two children, exacerbated Thailand’s and other South East Asian countries’ image problems.
Many Chinese people now regard them as dangerous.
No More Bets, a new film released in August, proved a tremendous box office success in China, grossing tens of millions of dollars in its first few days. It showed a Chinese model and a computer programmer being led into a scam centre in an undisclosed South East Asian country by the promise of high-paying jobs – and being forced to labour in slave-like conditions.
No More Bets sprang out of frightening news over the last two to three years about the thousands of people, many of them Chinese, who had become imprisoned in such scam centres in Cambodia and along Thailand’s lawless borders with Myanmar and Laos. In China, social media has also conveyed horrible reports of torture and abuse by individuals who have fled.
Abby, a Chinese student in Thailand who likes to vlog about places like 76 Garage to her social media followers, has observed how the popular image of Thailand has altered in the comments underneath her TikTok feed.
“The comments on my feed used to be very positive,”she recalls. “Many people said after watching my videos that they really wanted to come to Thailand.”
People are now worried, she claims, that the shirtless waiters in the pool are a scheme to entice unsuspecting diners to donate their kidneys: “People would approach me and ask, ‘Are you running a ‘kidney harvesting’ scam?” “Do you send people from Thailand to Myanmar?”
In the past, Chinese tourists had a terrible reputation in Thailand. They frequently travelled in huge, boisterous groups and were considered impolite and pushy.
There were complaints about so-called “zero dollar tourism,” in which they arrived on all-inclusive packages with the majority of the money going to operators in China, and there was public debate about the risks of relying too heavily on the Chinese.
Many of them are now staying away due to safety worries, and the Thai tourism industry is focusing its efforts on other countries such as Russia and India.
Thailand, on the other hand, cannot afford to ignore the world’s greatest market. Chinese travellers are among the most expensive in Thailand, spending an average of $180 per day.
Thailand has recruited Luo Yun Xi, a famous Chinese superstar known for his role in the film “Till the End of the Moon,” to promote its “Friends of Thailand” project in China in an effort to attract Chinese tourists.
The program’s goal is to promote Thailand through diverse travel experiences, as well as to stimulate cultural exchange between Thailand and China.
Luo Yun Xi will represent the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) by connecting people and encouraging cultural interaction between Thailand and China, displaying Thailand’s beauty to an international audience.
TAT expressed its hope that Luo Yun Xi would have a nice time in Thailand, visiting the lovely tourist destinations, savouring exquisite Thai cuisine, and sharing his thoughts of his trip with his fan group.
The general manager of Thailand Privilege Card Co Ltd, the organisation in charge of managing the Thailand Privilege Card membership card project, Manatase Annawat, stated that the cultural exchange with Chinese actor Luo Yunxi was a valuable opportunity to strengthen relationships with his over 28 million Chinese followers.
Luo Yunxi will represent Thailand by promoting it through diverse travel experiences and facilitating cultural exchanges between the two countries.
Members of the Thailand Privilege Card programme will receive a unique temporary five-year visa as part of the “Friends of Thailand” card scheme.
They will also get access to airport receptionist services, fast-track immigration, special lounge access for arrivals and departures, short-term limousine pick-up and drop-off services, and other advantages from partner companies.
These advantages span a wide range of lifestyle areas, such as health and spa services, shopping, dining, hotels, and so on, ultimately improving Thailand’s quality of life.