Life after coronavirus: future of Thai tourism industry is in Chinese hands, and phones

Proudly contributed by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

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Thai health officials take the temperatures of foreign tourists to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in February, before flights were grounded.
Photo: EPA

Few people are as aware of the devastation the novel coronavirus has inflicted on international travel as Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, a deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Tourism accounts for 12 per cent of his country’s GDP (up to 20 per cent when ancillary services are included) and provides jobs for almost one in 10 Thais, according to the International Labour Organisation.

But with borders closed and planes grounded across the world, this pillar of the Thai economy faces an uncertain future. The TAT’s best-case scenario is that 14-16 million people will visit this year, more than the 8.5 million projected by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, but far fewer than last year’s record of 39.8 million, a figure that made it far and away Southeast Asia’s most popular tourism destination.

Amid such unsettling figures, Kunjara Na Ayudhya knows one thing for sure: that “China will remain  Thailand ’s and Asia’s biggest outbound tourist market”.

Chinese accounted for more than one in four of the tourists who visited Thailand last year and their importance has only been magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic. Given that long-haul travel is not expected to rebound quickly, Thailand’s tourism strategy is now focused squarely on the short-haul travellers who are most likely to return first: visitors from China.

Refloating this market will be crucial not only to resurrecting Thailand’s economy but also those of neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The ability of these countries to revive their own tourism industries depends in part on Thailand’s successful reopening, as the airports of Bangkok serve as a hub for the region.

Doing so will be no easy task as Thailand will face increased competition from regional competitors like Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which had been in the middle of their own tourism booms before the virus struck, attracting 8.5 million and 8.26 million foreign arrivals respectively last year.

Both will be hoping to take out a chunk of the visitors who would traditionally pick Thailand. It will also face competition from China itself, with the pandemic having boosted interest in travel within the country. “We cannot leave it too late to prepare for Chinese arrivals,” Kunjara Na Ayudhya said. “International competition for this market is bound to be intense.”

Read the full article at South China Morning Post:

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