Thailand is experiencing an influx of foreign visitors as the government’s visa-free policy for tourists from countries including China has given the industry a much-needed boost.
However, business operators have called on the government to devise measures to address shortages of skilled labourers in the industry, improve transport infrastructure in provinces that are also major tourist spots, as well as deal with criminals exploiting the visa-exemption policy to enter the country and run illegal businesses.
Thailand is currently allowing visitors from Kazakhstan and China to stay for 30 days visa-free until Feb 29.
On Jan 28, Thailand and China signed an agreement on a reciprocal visa-free scheme that will take effect from March 1.
Under the agreement, holders of valid, ordinary Thai passports and Chinese holders of passports for public affairs and ordinary passports will be exempt from visa requirements when entering or transiting through the other country for up to 30 days.
Cumulative stays must not exceed 90 days in any 180-day period, except for the purposes of residing or engaging in employment, study, media activities or other activities that require prior approval.
Meanwhile, Russian passport holders can stay in Thailand for 90 days until April 30, while Indian and Taiwanese tourists can also enjoy a 30-day stay until May 10.
Last year, Thailand drew about 28 million foreign tourists and 1.2 trillion baht in revenue, well short of the record of almost 40 million arrivals and 1.9 trillion baht in revenue in 2019 or before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Tourism and Sports Ministry.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said Malaysians made up the largest group of visitors to Thailand, with around 4.5 million visitors last year while Chinese tourists formed the second-largest group with about 3.51 million visitors.
But as of Feb 1, Chinese travellers tallied more than 533,000 this year, followed by arrivals from Malaysia at more than 337,000 and South Korea at more than 229,000.
The Chinese comprised the biggest group of visitors in pre-pandemic 2019, with about 11 million.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry is confident the country can attract 35 million foreign visitors this year after 3 million arrived in January.
According to the Kasikorn Research Centre, a subsidiary of KBank, the Chinese formed the biggest group of tourists visiting Thailand last month due to several factors, including a seasonality factor as Chinese travellers often go on holidays toward the end of the year or soon after for Chinese New Year, which fell on Feb 10 this year.
Another factor is Thailand’s visa-exemption measure for Chinese tourists, which started on Sept 25 last year.
According to the research centre, China is expected to become Thailand’s top source of foreign arrivals by the end of this year, with an estimated 5.2 million arrivals.
This is because the momentum of Chinese tourists visiting Thailand is expected to continue to gather pace this year.
However, the return of Chinese tourists may take a while as economic challenges in China deter Chinese from travelling abroad while travel costs remain high, especially for those with relatively low incomes, according to the centre.
Surawat Akaraworamat, vice-presi- dent of the Tourism Council of Thailand, told the Bangkok Post that Chinese tourists have entered Thailand visa-free since September last year.
So, the reciprocal visa-free scheme that will take effect from March 1 should not lead to any further significant increase in Chinese arrivals. Instead, the number of Thais visiting China is expected to increase, he said.
Mr Surawat said that due to China’s economic problems this year’s Chinese visitors are markedly different to those who came back in 2019.
“This year we have a decrease in group tours from China but the number of Chinese travelling independently without being a part of a tour group is increasing. So, operators in the hospitality industry must adjust their approaches to respond to the trend,” he said.
He also said Thailand’s visa-free policy may also prompt Chinese businesses to invest in Thailand’s tourism industry using Thai nominees, which will enable them to compete with local business operators. “Even though Thailand has laws in place to deal with Thais acting as nominees on behalf of foreigners, the problem is that law enforcers do not measure up. This area [law enforcement] needs to be improved,” he said.
He also stressed the need for the government to devise measures to ensure foreign visitors’ safety.
Laws that belong to the Tourism and Sport Ministry and deal directly with tourism are few and far between, he said, adding that most of the laws belong to other ministries, such as the Public Health Ministry, the Transport Ministry and the Interior Ministry.
“There should be a law that is designed specifically to ensure foreign tourists’ safety,” he said. “Moreover, if the government wants to use Thai culture as soft power to attract international visitors, it should take the matter seriously. The private sector is already trying to promote the country’s soft power,” he said
“At least, the TAT should carry on with its campaign to promote cultural resources as categorised into 5Fs: food, film, fashion, fighting (Thai martial arts) and festivals,” he said. Mr Surawat said the government should also focus on travellers from the Middle East as they are big spenders, often staying at four-or five-star hotels.
Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, president of the Phuket Tourist Association, echoed the view that group tours from China are falling, compared to the increasing number of free independent travellers (FITs) from China.
These FIT travellers may not arrive in large numbers, but they stay longer and spend more at local businesses than group tour travellers, he said.
Mr Thaneth also said that after Thailand and China signed the agreement on the reciprocal visa-free scheme, about 370 direct flights from China to Phuket have been booked for this month, with an expected surge of free independent travellers from China.
Calls for govt help
Mr Thaneth also urged the government to hold talks with both domestic and international airline operators to increase flights to the island province and expand Phuket airport’s capacity to handle more passengers in the future.
He also wanted the government to improve road access to Phuket, as there is currently only one road, while the private sector and local bodies in Phuket should be granted licences to operate public transport systems. Utilities such as water, electricity and wastewater treatment, should also be improved to handle a surge of tourists, he said.
Bhunanan Patanasin, president of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association, hailed the visa-free policy, saying it has already attracted more Chinese tourists to Pattaya. He also said that most Chinese visitors travel on their own and are not part of any tour group. They stay at four-and five-star hotels and spend more than group tour travellers.
He also called on the government to develop measures to address problems affecting tourism in Pattaya, including shortages of skilled workers and a lack of intra-city and inter-provincial transport systems.
Road surfaces there should also be improved to ensure road safety and make it easy for visitors to travel, while the government should also push for more direct flights to U-Tapao airport to bring in more tourists to Pattaya and other nearby provinces in eastern Thailand.
Hi-tech to tackle crime
Pol Lt Gen Jiraphob Bhuridej, commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), told the Bangkok Post he was concerned that some criminals will exploit the visa-free policy to enter Thailand and operate illegal businesses here.
“Urgent measures must be devised to deal with various crimes systematically,” and he said that looking after the safety of foreign visitors and Thai people is also a priority. “Thailand will not be an easy place for criminals. The police will do all they can to make life difficult for them. We will crack down on them.”
He admitted that conventional approaches, such as street patrols, may not be enough to deal with some crimes. Modern technologies have been brought in to support immigration control and investigate the backgrounds of suspects arriving in Thailand. Long-distance high-speed thermal imaging cameras have also been installed along the border to detect foreigners who enter the country illegally via natural channels, Pol Lt Gen Jiraphob said.
He said the CIB has worked with Chinese authorities to combat Chinese criminals who pretend to be tourists and run illegal businesses here. “Thailand will not be a paradise for transnational criminal syndicates. Thais must not support illegal foreign businesses by acting as nominees,” he said.