With high hopes, Thailand welcomes the return of Chinese tourists

BANGKOK (AP) – Three cabinet ministers welcomed Chinese tourists with flowers and gifts as they arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport Monday after China eased travel restrictions.

The high-profile event reflected the importance Thailand places on courting Chinese travelers to help recover its pandemic-hit tourism industry – before COVID-19 hit, they accounted for about a third of all arrivals.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and the Ministers of Transport and Tourism were among those who applauded as 269 passengers on Xiamen Airlines Flight MF833 from Xiamen in southeast China entered the terminal. It was one of the first flights to arrive in Thailand since Beijing eased its coronavirus-related travel restrictions starting Sunday.

The travelers received garlands and small gift bags, and were greeted by a large banner that said “China and Thailand are one family, Amazing Thailand always warmly welcomes our Chinese family.”

“I feel good,” said Simon Zou from Tianjin in northeastern China. “I can feel the hospitality of Thai people. We received some small gifts. I feel very happy.”

When asked what he plans to do in Thailand, he replied: “Eat! Have fun! And experience Thailand’s culture.”

“The number of tourists from China and other parts of the world traveling to Thailand tends to increase continuously,” Anutin told reporters at the airport. “This is a good sign for the Thai tourism sector, which generates revenue, adds value to the economy, creates jobs and opportunities for people.”

The arrival was heralded by Thai authorities as a symbolic step towards restoring the country’s lucrative tourism sector. But it also revealed how difficult it is for tourist-hungry nations to navigate the coronavirus.

When the Chinese tourists arrived, Anutin announced at the airport that visitors would not be required to show covid-19 vaccination certificates.

Just two days earlier, the Ministry of Transport and Communications had released a detailed list of revised requirements for visitors from abroad, including the need to show proof of vaccinations.

The announcement by the transport authority itself was a sudden reversal from what had been Thailand’s policy since October, when it dropped almost all pandemic-related requirements for visitors from abroad.

Anutin said the only requirement retained from the Transportation Ministry’s revised rules was that proof of insurance is required for visitors coming from countries that require coronavirus tests before returning home. This condition will apply mostly, if not exclusively, to China.

On Sunday, Beijing lifted a mandatory quarantine for arrivals from abroad that was imposed when the pandemic began three years ago. The move is expected to release a large amount of pent-up demand for emigration.

But so far few flights have been restored. On Monday, a check of arrivals at regional airports found only a handful of flights from China. The largest proportion were traveling to South Korea.

A resurgence of infections in China and the relaxed rules led the United States and some countries in Europe and East Asia to tighten rules on travelers from China, raising accusations of discrimination from Beijing. Thai officials have taken pains not to offend China, stressing that Thai rules apply to all countries.

Other countries in Southeast Asia also typically host large numbers of tourists from China, but not on Thailand’s scale. Most abolished the entry requirements and have stuck to that policy, declaring publicly that there was no need to single out visitors from China for new restrictions. Malaysia and Indonesia said they screened incoming travelers for fever, a routine, non-intrusive procedure.

Wang Zhiying from Beijing, one of Monday’s arrivals in Bangkok, said she used to go to Thailand every year but had not since the pandemic broke out.

She said she believed other countries’ COVID-19 policies “are pretty strict.”

“If they only do this to Chinese people, it would make us uncomfortable. Thailand is friendly and the landing visa is available, so we chose Thailand as our first overseas destination when we can go abroad,” said Wang, whose family planned to go south to a seaside resort after a few days in Beijing.

In 2019, before the pandemic, about 11 million Chinese visited Thailand each year, and tourism industry-related revenue accounted for about a fifth of the country’s GDP, Tanes Petsuwan, deputy governor of international marketing in Asia and the South Pacific for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Last year, 10 million visitors were expected, but 11.8 million actually came, mostly after the restrictions were lifted in October.

“The TAT previously estimated that there would be around 20 million international visitors this year, but it has adjusted it to 25 million thanks to the Chinese,” Tanes said.

He said he expects arrivals to reach or surpass pre-pandemic levels in the next two to three years, possibly reaching 40 million by 2025.

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Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.

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