Thai Industry holds breath on China visa-free travel impact

The visa-free travel scheme for Chinese tourists entering Thailand, launched in September 2023, has become a permanent arrangement after lawmakers signed a deal to implement a two-way, visa-free arrangement between the two nations.

The reciprocal legislation will go into effect on March 1 this year. The Thai government expects the development to increase the number of Chinese arrivals by up to 57 per cent.

Thailand hopes to see an increase in the number of Chinese arrivals this year; Chinese tourists at The Grand Palace in Bangkok, pictured (Photo: Neothingol)

The Tourism Authority of Thailand has intensified its courtship of Chinese tourists over the past year, with the most recent initiative being an eight-day fam trip for the market’s top influencers in late-December 2023.

In a show of top-level support for the Chinese travel market, Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin personally led a welcome ceremony in September to greet the first group of tourists arriving from China at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport under a temporary tourist visa exemption scheme.

However, Thai travel industry stakeholders are not convinced that the slashing of red tape will be enough to acquire the government’s target of 8.2 million Chinese arrivals in 2024. Even with visa-free travel for Chinese tourists operating for a quarter of the year, the number of Chinese tourists in 2023 topped out at just 3.5 million.

Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) told the Bangkok Post that the new paperwork was not enough, as seat capacity between the two countries was still half of pre-Covid volume. Cheewarattanaporn also expressed concerns about the ongoing struggles of the Chinese economy, which has caused more Chinese consumers to travel domestically; expensive airfares are also contributing factors to the possible travel shortfall.

Lek, an independent travel agent in Bangkok who works mainly with business travellers, thinks it is too early to judge the effect of the reciprocal legislation.

“Once we have seen the behaviour of Chinese travellers during the coming Chinese New Year, usually a very busy period for Chinese-Thai travel, we will better understand how the year will pan out. If we don’t get a spike by then, I don’t have much hope for the rest of the year,” she said.

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