Thailand has just welcomed its 1 millionth visitor from China since the beginning of the year, marking another step forward for the recovery of the country’s pivotal tourist sector.
In a statement yesterday, government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said that the country had recorded 1 million Chinese arrivals between January and May 18, the Bangkok Post reported. He added that the government was hopeful of fulfilling its goal of attracting 5 million Chinese tourists in 2023, which could bring an estimated 446 billion baht ($13.18 billion) in revenue.
“This success is due to the hard work of all agencies involved in the country’s efforts to regain the trust of international tourists and our status as one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations,” Anucha said, according to the Post.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a nearly fatal blow to Thailand’s tourism sector. While the country managed to contain with relative success the first surge of COVID-19, the shutdowns and collapse in international travel devastated the country’s tourism industry. International tourist arrivals dropped from a record 40 million in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, to 6.7 million in 2020 and then to a paltry 428,000 in 2021.
Given the importance of tourism to the Thai economy – the sector contributes an estimated 20 percent of the country’s GDP, and supports hundreds of thousands of livelihoods – announcements about tourist numbers are keenly anticipated and scrutinized.
This latest announcement suggests that the recovery of Thailand’s tourist industry since last July’s full international reopening is now within sight of pre-pandemic levels. The 1 million Chinese visitors were among the 9.47 million foreign tourist arrivals that Thailand saw from January to mid-May. In 2023, the government is expecting 25 million international visitors, compared to the record 40 million-odd who visited in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 11.15 million international visitors were recorded in 2022, exceeding the government’s target of 10 million. The three leading countries of origin were Malaysia, India, and Singapore.
The tourist sector, which contributes around a fifth of Thailand’s GDP, has helped drive a greater-than-expected growth of 2.7 percent in the first quarter of 2023.
However, the recovery in Chinese tourist arrivals has lagged far behind the recovery of the Thai tourism sector as a whole. This is due largely to Beijing’s severe “zero COVID” policy, which until January made outbound international travel complicated and costly in terms of both time and money. Last year, just 274,000 Chinese tourists visited Thailand, according to Reuters. In 2019, they made up 11 million, or about 28 percent, of total international tourist arrivals. Even with this year’s recovery, they have so far made up only about 10.5 percent of arrivals.
Not content to rest on its laurels, the Thai Tourism Authority has launched a “Trust Thailand” campaign aimed at rekindling the Chinese love affair with the country. Under the campaign, the Bangkok Post reported yesterday, “60 Chinese opinion leaders, members of the press, airlines and related businesses will be invited to visit the kingdom to further promote Thailand as a premier destination.”
While it remains unclear if or when Thailand’s tourism sector will exceed the zenith of 2019, Chinese tourist arrivals are likely to continue to expand considerably between now and the end of the year.