ATTA president Vichit Prakobgosol speaks at a meeting during the ATTA’s roadshow in Hefei, China.
Thai travel agencies are mobilising efforts to woo back Chinese travellers in the wake of July’s deadly Phuket boat disaster and amid rising competition from neighbouring countries by promoting second-tier provinces and appealing to authorities to ease visa requirements.
Members of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) last month conducted roadshows in Tianjing, Quingdao, Hefei and Nanjing to draw Chinese tourists to 55 secondary provinces in Thailand.
The roadshows in the four Chinese cities attracted as many as 400 Chinese travel agents to various events.
The capsizing of the tour boat Phoenix off Phuket on July 5 claimed the lives of 47 Chinese passengers. Since then, the number of Chinese tourists in the country has plunged by a reported 20-30%.
Thailand’s image suffered a fresh black eye when a security guard at Don Mueang airport came under fire after a video clip showing him trying to hit a Chinese tourist in the face at the airport went viral.
“The boat sinking caused people to be concerned about safety,” said Anchalee Kumwong, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT’s) Beijing office. “I have to say that we are spending a lot of effort trying to bring the Chinese tourists back to Thailand.”
ATTA president Vichit Prakobgosol stressed that the country also faces tough competitions from other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which are pursuing a price-cutting strategy.
The Philippines just launched a new airport in the resort city of Cebu, where Chinese signboards can be seen everywhere in an apparent move to impress Chinese tourists.
Mr Vichit said it’s important for Thailand to come up with new measures to attract Chinese travellers, such as the promotion of tourism in second-tier provinces.
Another possible approach is the easing of visa requirements for Chinese visitors.
China has requested visa-free travel for its nationals, and many countries have begun to comply.
“I know it’s hard to waive visas for them, since the country [Thailand] earns tens of billions of baht a year from visa fees,” Mr Vichit said. He said he would rather ask the authorities to consider a double-entry visa over a six-month period for Chinese tourists instead.
Such a measure would at least create the impression that Thailand attaches importance to Chinese travellers, he said, adding that the measure should be implemented ahead of the coming holiday season.
“If they [the Chinese] do not think of us as the No.1 [tourist destination], this means we will lose opportunity in tourism industry,” Mr Vichit said. “It would be significantly damaging.”
Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of the ATTA, plans to petition the Tourism and Sports Ministry and the TAT to back a double-entry visa scheme as soon as possible.
Mr Adith expressed confidence that arrivals of Chinese tourists would improve in the coming months, but he said the urgent task now is to ensure that the number of flights from China to Thailand don’t drop.
“The group spending the most now is the Chinese,” Mr Adith said.
Gao Jian Jun, of the China National Tourism Administration in Tianjin, said the negative feelings about past problems in Thailand have gone.
He said that while it remains uncertain whether Chinese tourists will head to Thailand as usual during Golden Week (Oct 1-7), he’s quite sure that from December they will come back to Thailand as a prime destination.
“The Chinese always think of Thailand among the top destinations,” Mr Gao said. “Chinese travellers pay more attention to safety, and the Thai authorities have shown they are enthusiastic about laying out measures to deal with the issue.”
Lerdchai Wangtrakoondee, director of the TAT’s Shanghai office, insisted that Thailand should not engage in price wars with other countries to draw Chinese tourists.
He said the country’s tourism industry is past that point, noting: “We have come to the spot where we need to take into account quality more than quantity. The travellers should receive services and be impressed by them. They choose to come to travel in Thailand due to quality.”
Mr Lerdchai said the TAT is working with Chinese tourism websites to disseminate information about the second-tier provinces and draw Chinese travellers.
More focus will be placed on environmentally friendly tourism, with safety standards and prices being maintained at middle to high levels in all segments, he said, noting that luxury, sports and family groups, as well as couples will be targeted.
The second-tier provinces, particularly those with unique cultures and traditions, will attract travellers, especially those who look for tourism information online, Mr Lerdchai said, noting that the strategy will also be a boon for income distribution in local communities.
“The Chinese love Thailand and they like our livelihoods, something that charms them,” he said.
According to Mr Lerdchai, 100 million out of the 1.4-billion-strong Chinese population become richer every year, and it’s likely that they want to travel abroad more.
Last year, 9.38 million Chinese came to Thailand and spent 529 billion baht. High-income earners prefer coming to Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya.
The promotion of tourism in second-tier provinces could usher in a new experience for groups to plan a Thai trip on their own, according to Ms Anchalee.
She said tourism packages for provincial clusters could be introduced; for instance, grouping Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Lampang or Pattaya, Chantaburi and Trat.
Ms Anchalee said her office puts emphasis on luxury, health and sport groups, which are gaining steam.
Some 60% of Chinese tourists in Thailand are women, a group believed to spend more than men. The office is also finding ways to attract groups of women planning to travel to Thailand by themselves.
Health tourism is gaining momentum among Chinese travellers because they can fly to Thailand in less than five hours and find good services, practitioners and up-to-date medical equipment, but at lower prices than in Europe, Singapore and Japan, Ms Anchalee said.
She said a five-day health checkup package could cost 10,000-12,000 yuan (47,000-56,507 baht). Beauty services are another selling point of Thailand for Chinese customers.
Rungruedee Yavichai, operator of CCT Express Co, a member of Chiang Mai Tour Group, said that after the July boat accident Chinese travellers have started to switch from Phuket in the South to Chiang Mai and other northern provinces.
They tend to travel to a cluster of several provinces, such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Lamphun and Phayao, she said, adding: “Now the four-star hotels in these provinces are fully booked.”
Yongyuth Ng Rattanakorn, the executive director of tour boat operator Andaman Wave Master, said the tragic boat incident did not scare away all Chinese tourists.
“We still see Chinese travellers heading to Thailand,” he said.