Thais have mixed feelings about visa-waiver program for Chinese tourists

Wilawan Watcharasakwej and Harry Pearl
Thais have mixed feelings about visa-waiver program for Chinese tourists A group of Chinese tourists walks through the entrance at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Sept. 10, 2023.
[Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

A visa-waiver program for Chinese tourists visiting Thailand is generating mixed feelings for hotelier M. Shiva ahead of its launch on Monday.

As the owner of a small business in Chiang Mai, the 32-year-old knows the importance of Chinese travelers for the local economy, but as their numbers have grown so has his frustration with Chinese companies selling low-budget package tours, derided as “zero-dollar” tours.

“Chinese tourists have a huge impact on local businesses,” Shiva told BenarNews.

His hometown is particularly popular after it was featured in the 2012 Chinese smash hit movie “Lost in Thailand.”

“We rely on them, but we don’t know how to get rid of illicit business people to fully help Thai entrepreneurs,” he said.

Shiva was referring to the many unauthorized tour operators, some of whom the government took to court accusing them of pressuring visitors to spend at a network of overpriced shops, hotels and restaurants run by Chinese owners.

All 13 defendants were acquitted of charges in a series of rulings that concluded last year, but suspicion remains among some tour guides and small-business owners.

“There are concerns about Chinese investors who may come here and set up companies and steal jobs from Thai people. But in fact, they have been here long before the introduction of the free-visa campaign,” Paisarn Suethanuwong, a tour guide, told BenarNews. 

Overall, though, Paisarn, a member of the Professional Tourist Guides Association of Thailand, said the free-visa policy should be good for the economy.

Chinese tourists dip lotus bulbs in a water bowl at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Sept. 10, 2023. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin announced last week that Thailand would waive tourist visa requirements for nationals of China and Kazakhstan from Sept. 25 to Feb. 29, 2024. The government hopes the policy will boost foreign visitor numbers to 30 million this year, including 5 million Chinese.

But the policy has received a varied response from some in the tourism industry, the public and media. Authorities have acknowledged it comes with risks, while China’s cooling economic growth could yet derail the plan.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, Chinese nationals accounted for a little over a quarter of the nearly 40 million tourists who visited the Southeast Asian nation, according to official data.

This year, Chinese nationals have slowly begun returning since Beijing lifted its hardline pandemic rules in January.

From January to Sept. 10, Thailand recorded about 18.5 million foreign tourists, including 2.2 million Chinese, who were the second biggest group behind Malaysians, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. Thailand received a paltry 262,443 Chinese tourists last year.

The visa-waiver program should help increase Chinese arrivals by making travel easier and cheaper because tourists won’t have to pay visa fees, said Suphachai Charoenkittipaisarn, a researcher in the economics department at Burapha University in Chonburi province.

“The targeted 5 million Chinese tourists is attainable,” he told BenarNews.

But police Lt. Gen. Pakpoompipat Sajjapan, the commissioner of the Immigration Bureau, said earlier this month that the initiative could create a loophole through which call center gangs, illegal businesses and other transnational criminal groups enter the country, according to a report by the Bangkok Post.

Meanwhile, “No More Bets,” a blockbuster Chinese film released in August, has created concerns among potential tourists about traveling to Thailand, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

Claiming to be based on “real events,” the film is about a computer programmer “who ends [up] in a violent scamming compound in Southeast Asia after being trafficked through an unnamed country remarkably similar to Thailand,” AFP said.

A Chinese tourist plays with water as she celebrates during the Songkran holiday which marks the Thai New Year in Bangkok, April 13, 2023. [Chalinee Thirasupa/Reuters]

Tourism Minister Sudawan Wangsupakitkosol said last week the government would strictly enforce the law against illegal businesses, while noting the 2.2 million Chinese arrivals this year had contributed more than 100 billion baht in revenue to the country, local media reported.

International tourism was a key driver of economic growth before COVID-19, but the industry was decimated after international borders closed and Thailand imposed its own restrictions on foreign visitors. Gross domestic product expanded 1.5% in 2021 and 2.6% in 2022.

As tourism rebounds, it will have a positive effect on the overall economy, said Kamonmarn Jaenglom, a senior analyst at Siam Commercial Bank’s Economic Intelligence Center.

“[We] forecast Thai economic growth outlook in 2023 to be 3.1%,” Kamonmarn said. “There remains impetus from the private consumption and tourism sector.”

But a full recovery in Thailand’s tourism industry might be a way off, amid a challenging international environment.

“International arrivals will take until at least 2024 to recover to pre-pandemic levels, foreign tourist expenditure remains lower than 2019 due to uncertainty in the global economy, and there are cost pressures due to high commodity price and labor costs,” Kamonmarn said.

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.