11 July 2024

The tourism sector is enjoying a major recovery in 2023 after years of slump following the debilitating pandemic.

As of December 3, the number of foreign arrivals grew 175 per cent year on year to a total of 25 million.

Though tourism numbers are yet to match the pre-pandemic boom of 2019 when foreign tourists reached almost 40 million — comprising 11 million Chinese — the current high numbers are expected to make a sizable contribution towards growing Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) by around 2.5 per cent this year.

The top five source countries for tourist arrivals were: Malaysia 4.1 million, China 3.1 million,  South Korea 2.48 million, India 1.46 million and Russia 1.29 million this year, according to the Tourism and Sports Ministry’s latest estimates.

Below target

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) recently updated its projection and predicted the total number of tourists would reach 27 million this year, falling short of the 28 million target. The tourists were expected to spend 1.2 trillion baht in Thailand, well below the targeted 1.6 trillion baht. The TAT projects domestic tourism to generate another 800 billion baht in revenue this year.

Thailand is only slowly recovering from the economic crisis that rocked the country when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Thailand’s GDP shrunk by 6.1 per cent in 2020, the biggest contraction since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 . The tourism sector, which accounts for about a fifth of GDP and 20 per cent of employment, was one of the worst affected as global travel ceased, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Dependence on China

China, as one of the seriously affected countries, maintained a tight lockdown on travel once the pandemic spread. And so it was welcome news when China abandoned its stringent zero-COVID policy at the end of 2022 and allowed its citizens to travel abroad in January. The Thai government led by former prime minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha eagerly facilitated the arrival of Chinese tourists by sparing them COVID screening measures as imposed by other countries.

The government had earlier expected 5 million Chinese tourists this year, but ongoing trends indicate it could be well short of that number.

Many factors have adversely affected Chinese tourist arrivals. One of them was a shooting incident in October in the high-end Siam Paragon department store in Bangkok where a Chinese woman tourist was killed. The Chinese this year have been swayed by negative views on public safety. Some have pointed their fingers at Chinese criminal gangs who run scammer centres in Myanmar and other countries in Southeast Asia.

Netizens are also debating the adverse impact of movies like “No More Bets”, which paint Thailand in a negative image. The movie released in August tells the story of several Chinese citizens who are tricked into taking a work trip overseas only to be forced into operating illegal online investments, gambling and cryptocurrency scams in an unnamed Southeast Asian country.

Meanwhile the slow economic recovery in China has not been encouraging for Chinese to travel overseas, while at the same time their government is urging travel within the country to stimulate the domestic economy.

Proactive steps by government

The new coalition government led by the Pheu Thai Party has launched radical new measures to attract foreign visitors. It exempted citizens of China and Kazakhstan from visas, effective from September 25, 2023 to February 29, 2024. This scheme was later extended to cover visitors from India and Taiwan as well.

The latest measure to boost tourism is to allow select pubs to remain open until 4am. This covers entertainment venues in major tourist destinations, such as Bangkok, Phuket, Chonburi, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, effective December 15 onwards.

Rapid tourism recovery this year has also caused labour shortage in hotels and related tourism industry, according to a survey by the Bank of Thailand.

Another positive indicator for Thailand’s economy is the rising number of foreigners who bought condominium units in key provinces, pointing to the large numbers of foreigners who want to retire, or plan long stay in the country.

The number of residential units sold to foreigners in the first six months of the year rose  14.7 per cent year on year to 7,338 units with a combined value of 35.2 billion baht, up 24.5 per cent year on year. Chinese buyers represented the largest share with purchases worth 16.9 billion baht, accounting for 48.3 per cent.

Tourism outlook for 2024

The government is targeting the number of foreign tourists to reach 35 million next year and estimates 2.5 trillion baht in revenue for the country. Local tourism is expected to generate another trillion baht in revenue.  Tourism agencies expect a spike in visitors from China, estimated to reach 8.5 million next year.

The Bank of Thailand says that revenue from foreign tourists are expected to significantly contribute to the current account surplus next year. The current account surplus is estimated at US$8.3 billion to US$10 billion, considerably higher than the estimated $5 billion this year.

Risk of slowdown

Pent-up demand in the post-pandemic period has undoubtedly contributed to the rapid recovery of tourism worldwide, including Thailand, this year. But there is also a risk next year of a deceleration in momentum. The industry may feel the effects of the global slowdown, according to some economists.

The IMF has forecast the world economy would expand 2.9 per cent next year, slowing down from 3 per cent this year. China’s economy may expand 4.2 per cent, the US by 1.5 per cent, the euro zone by 1.2 per cent. There is, however, good news from emerging and developing Asia Pacific economies, which are expected to maintain strong growth next year at an average 4.8 per cent. India stands out with a projected 6.3 per cent expansion. India is also a major source of foreign tourists for Thailand.

The World Bank, meanwhile, sees potential for Thailand to draw more tourists by upgrading tourist destinations in second-tier provinces.

It remains to be seen whether revenue from tourism will go back to the pre-crisis level of 3 trillion baht with revenue from foreign tourists accounting for two-thirds of it.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk