Easier visa-free access for Chinese tourists is a risky move amid lower demand with a rising flight of criminal classes and the desire by certain elements in China to shift funds offshore. The move may backfire and lead to more damage to the kingdom’s reputation among genuine tourists from affluent Chinese population centres although the Royal Thai Police has assured the government in recent days that it was prepared to ensure the security of all visitors even under the new free visa regime.

The new Tourism and Sports minister Sudawan Wang-Suphakitkosol, on Thursday, set out her stall to not only reach record levels of foreign tourist numbers next year but to exceed the income level earned that year by over 50%. This comes despite substantially lower income per capita income generation when compared to 2019, recorded in 2023 and what appears to be out-of-kilter official figures. It comes with visa-free access approved by the cabinet on Wednesday for both China and Kazakhstan in the face of strong security concerns and heightened links between criminality and undesirable elements from the Communist country. 

The new Minister of Tourism and Sports Sudawan Wang-Suphakitkosol was speaking to reporters on Thursday after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting where the Prime Minister underlined the importance of foreign tourism to the economy and demanded that all ministries assist efforts to boost arrivals into the kingdom.

Following the first working cabinet meeting on Wednesday this week, the Thai government confirmed that it had granted permission for a free visa regime to be operated from the 25th of September 2023 to the 29th of February 2024 in respect of visitors from China and Kazakhstan.

The proposal to offer visa-free facilities to Chinese visitors has already proved controversial, with security analysts pointing to the large spike in criminality which resulted at the start of the year in conjunction with a surge in the number of Chinese arrivals.

Curbs and stricter controls on incoming Chinese tourists imposed by outgoing National Police Chief General Damrongsak Kittiprapas earlier this year

Chinese visitors were allowed to travel to the kingdom again after the communist country lifted its travel restrictions and Thailand emerged from its lockdown at the beginning of the year.

At that time, Thai police noted a correlation between the increase in Chinese visitors and rising criminality in Bangkok and Pattaya.

New visa-free regime plan for Chinese tourists will see more criminal elements entering Thailand
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Fear-mongering, fake news and disinformation being stoked in China against visiting Thailand

This necessitated moves to curb access from China to would-be tourists which were initiated and brought into play by outgoing National Police Commissioner General Damrongsak Kittiprapas.

Online campaign in China earlier this year has damaged the kingdom’s reputation there, further outrages will be disastrous for Thailand’s reputation

The rising spate of kidnappings and murders caused an online campaign to flourish in China in March attempting to persuade Chinese nationals not to visit Thailand for fear of becoming a victim of criminal gangs.

Chinese trio held and facing a heightened prospect of execution for a horrific murder in Thailand

This campaign is thought to have severely damaged Thailand’s reputation in China.

Another upsurge in kidnappings of Chinese nationals and similar outrages such as the horrific and sadistic murder of Chinese student, Jin Can, by a group of male tourists from the northern province of Hebei in China in Nonthaburi earlier this year, would be disastrous.

Thailand targets ฿1.52 trillion in foreign tourism income in 2023 or 80% of the 2019 figure, this is exceedingly optimistic given far weaker spending

Following the cabinet meeting on Wednesday the 13th of September, the new Minister of Tourism and Sports, Ms Sudawan Wang-Suphakitkosol announced that the new visa entry regime for China and Kazakhstan was to be part of an effort to restore the kingdom’s foreign tourism industry. 

The goal is to move beyond the level achieved in the record-breaking year of 2019.

Ms Sudawan had already set a target of 40 million visitors for 2024 and a target of ฿3 trillion in income, well ahead of what was earned four years ago in a record-breaking year for Thailand’s tourism industry before it was crushed in 2020 and 2021 with pandemic crisis-era restrictions.

The figure appears to be based on a massive rise in tourist spending, which has not been the case this year. Thailand is on target in 2023 to see somewhere between 28 and 30 million visitors.

The minister, on Wednesday, suggested that the country may achieve an income level of ฿1.52 trillion or 80% of what was achieved in 2019.

Based on visitor arrivals being achieved at 28 million arrivals this would average out at an expenditure of ฿54,000 per visitor.

However, because the nature of foreign tourism in 2023 has changed substantially, comprising more short-term tourists from Asian countries, it is reported that the average spend of ฿47,738 in 2019 has plunged to ฿40,100 in 2023. 

Even if Thailand can attract 40 million arrivals in 2024, earnings of ฿3 trillion are unlikely based on current visitor spending patterns and profiles

The figures tend to show that even if Thailand can return to a level of arrivals amounting to 40 million tourists, then, based on the current expenditure per capita, it can only hope to achieve ฿1.64 trillion in foreign tourism earnings next year compared to the ฿3 trillion targeted by the government after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

The inclusion of Kazakhstan in the visa-free dispensation is also interesting since Kazakhstan has not previously been a significant market for Thai tourism and is not even analysed separately on monthly breakdowns released by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports except under the category of other for South Asian countries.

However, both Kazakhstan and China have a significantly higher GDP per capita than Thailand with China’s running at $12,656 per head in 2022 while Kazakhstan’s was $11,424. 

Thailand by comparison was only $7,651.

Kazakhstan, the new tourist market being targeted, saw serious unrest develop in that country in January 2022, which saw Russian military forces deployed to its largest city, Almaty, when violent protests erupted over rising fuel costs.

Tourism minister wants 30% more arrivals in 2024

The new tourism minister highlighted, after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, that her priority was to increase the number of tourists visiting the Kingdom by 30% in 2024.

On Thursday, Ms Sudawan set a target of ฿4 trillion in income from both foreign and domestic tourism activities next year. 

Referring to the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, she highlighted the new prime minister’s determination to fire up the key industry which is without doubt a valuable economic asset: ‘Mr Srettha Thavisin, the Prime Minister and Minister for Finance and the whole cabinet agreed that the Ministry of Tourism generates income for the whole country quickly. It is a quick win for the Thai economy and the Prime Minister has ordered efforts to promote the industry be integrated into the efforts of all ministries. This can be seen from the visa exemption policy for Chinese and Kazakhstan tourists that the cabinet approved on September 13th, making it seem likely that we will reach the goal of generating income from more foreign tourists.’

Aim is to position Thailand as the Entertainment capital of Asia, taking this accolade from Singapore

The new tourism minister talked about Thailand emerging as the hub for Entertainment and Sports in Asia replacing Singapore as the Entertainment Capital for the continent.

At the same time, a spokesman for the ministry, Chai Wacharonke reiterated that the goal was to exceed the 40 million visitors achieved in 2019, in 2024. 

‘Tourism is the only economic engine that can still run and is expected to generate substantial revenue for the country,’ Mr Chai told the media. 

The tourism industry during the COVID-19 emergency has proved itself to be at the heart of the Thai economy, not only in directly generating 12% of direct GDP but 20% of the country’s overall economic activity including spin-off income for other sectors that benefit such as construction.

Pandemic shutdowns severely damaged the industry not only structurally but also in terms of international confidence due to erratic decision-making

However, the disastrous impact of the pandemic shutdowns is still felt within the industry, with many small hotels struggling under huge debt burdens, despite loan moratoriums and other concessions introduced by the previous government.

The loss of confidence caused by the dramatic shutdowns in 2020 and 2021, as well as the arbitrary nature of decisions made by the previous government, is also known to have damaged the relationship between Thailand and the international travel industry, most notably among international airlines during the chaotic period that followed significant spikes and threats from the virus across the world.

Thailand has not regained the same level of flight connectivity even to key markets such as China that it lost in early April 2020 when the country shut down its airspace to international flights and the foreign tourism industry itself. 

‘This year the expected revenue from tourism will account for 80% of the figure in 2019 when tourism-related revenue peaked before the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Mr Chai told reporters this week. 

45.4% of visitors to September were from Asian countries dominating the top five countries of origin

However, these figures are open to question given the reported lower level of per capita spending now associated with the profile of foreign tourists being seen from the 1st of January to September 3rd, 2023, when the country recorded 18 million visitors, with 45.4% of these coming from the country’s five markets which were Malaysia, China, South Korea, India and Russia. 

There are also fears that the visa-free concession to Chinese visitors will be exploited by foreign mafia gangs, particularly Chinese triad gangs who are sending criminal elements not only from China but from criminal hotspots around the world including Cambodia, Dubai and other centres which is causing more and more Chinese nationals including lone operators, to commit criminal acts in Thailand linked to kidnapping, money laundering, fraud and even cases of coercion and murder.

In the last decade or so, Thailand has become a magnet country for Chinese crime gangs involved in online fraud, gambling and drug dealing to launder money and migrate large numbers of people to the kingdom.

Chinese gangs approaching expectant Thai fathers in private hospitals seeking identity transfers

Many of these people have successfully obtained not only long-term visas but also Thai citizenship and the direction of Thai companies through newborn children.

Prime Minister Srettha to act as an ambassador for Thailand when he visits foreign countries in forthcoming trips say officials at the Ministry

On Thursday, officials at the Ministry of Tourism and Sports also pointed out that Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin would soon be visiting foreign countries and attempting to drum up interest in Thailand as an idyllic vacation hotspot.

Among the plans being worked on is a goal to make key Thai cultural and religious events such as Loy Krathong and Songkran into world-class festivals to attract fun-loving visitors from all over the world.

The cabinet also discussed increasing flight connectivity between Thailand and other countries, especially with new flights into secondary airports or regions.

The ministry is also reported to be setting up what it calls an online crisis management team to respond to emergencies which may impact the country’s valuable foreign tourism industry stemming from possible emergencies or accidents which may occur in the kingdom.

This unit will also be tasked with combating negative coverage which was seen at the beginning of the year in China, despite intensive efforts by the Thai Embassy in Beijing, ultimately unsuccessful, to thwart the virulent and damaging campaign which reached hundreds of millions of Chinese visitors, portraying Thailand as a land of danger for tourists.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, on Thursday, outlined 10 measures which the ministry was currently working on to restart the tourism industry and help contribute to the economic recovery being planned by the new Pheu Thai-led government.

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