Thailand's tourist industry hoped for a quick revival when Beijing ended its zero-COVID policy late last year, unleashing a crush of Chinese travelers freed from pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Data from Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports showed that more than 517,000 Chinese travelers visited Thailand during the first three months of 2023, up from 13,700 arrivals during the first quarter of 2022. In the first quarter of 2023, Chinese travelers were in the top five groups of foreign arrivals, along with Malaysian, Russian, South Korea and Indian visitors.
Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told VOA Thai that fewer Chinese travelers than expected arrived in the first quarter of 2023, but that their numbers were expected to pick up as agencies promoted Thailand to Chinese eager to travel after three years of lockdowns.
In 2023, Thailand's National Economic and Social Development Council predicted that the country's gross domestic product would grow 2.7% to 3.7%, with tourism expected to benefit such sectors as restaurants and services.
Amonthep Chawla, head of research at CIMB Thai Bank, told VOA Thai that he "expected a lot more Chinese tourists coming to Thailand by the second half of this year, which could benefit four areas — chained budget hotels, medical tourism, condominium market and business travelers for FDI [foreign direct investment] and trade."
Paul Pruangkarn, chief of staff at the Pacific Asia Travel Association in Bangkok, told VOA Thai he agreed that the resumption of travel and the reopening of China were welcome sights for many businesses looking to rebuild and recover. Chinese travelers, he noted, "made up approximately 20% of all visitors to Thailand" before the pandemic.
Some analysts, however, cautioned that the economic benefits from an increase in Chinese tourists might be exaggerated.
"I think there is too much hype about the benefits of the return of Chinese tourists and tourism overall for several reasons," said Kobsidthi Silpachai, head of capital markets research at Thailand's Kasikornbank.
One reason, he said, was the apparent return of zero-dollar tourism, or cheap travel packages aimed at Chinese tourists on a budget.
"Chinese operators have invested in condos and shops, which has provided initial capital infusion, something like what happened in Cambodia," Kobsidthi wrote in an email to VOA Thai. "But afterwards, there is little trickling effects to spread the wealth to the local economy."
Paisarn Suethanuwong, a travel business operator and a member of the Professional Tourist Guides Association of Thailand in Bangkok, questioned the considerable growth of businesses aimed at Chinese patrons.
"Some shops are nicely decorated, and I have never seen any customers eating there, but they are still operating," he said. "Honestly, I wonder if they are opened for money laundering. If so, then this not normal growth."
Rerngrit La-ookit, a barista from Cloud Cafe in northern Chiang Mai, said the influx of Chinese tourists has a downside.
"The arrival of the zero-dollar tour has been consuming our resources, and the economy here has never grown anywhere else," said Rerngrit.
While the return of Chinese tourists is a boon to many in Thailand, the country's law enforcement agencies have seen an increase in crimes committed by Chinese.
Surachate Hakparn, deputy national police chief, told VOA Thai that Thailand's law enforcement agency had launched a crackdown on Chinese criminal groups operating illegal businesses. The number of such businesses has risen not only in Thailand but also in other Southeast Asian countries in recent years.
Surachate said Chinese nationals' illicit operations — so-called gray businesses — involve drug trade and human trafficking through service establishments such as pubs and bars.
VOA Thai Service's Pinitkarn Tulachom and Yiamyut Sutthichaya contributed to this report.