Chinese tourism sustains Thailand’s junta

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Golden opportunity: high-speed rail will put Thailand within a few hours of a potentially massive market of tourists in Southern Chinese. Photo: Reuters

Long immigration lines at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport on August 5 inspired one frustrated traveler to describe the facility as “the pit of hell” in a Twitter post. The delays, lasting up to four-five hours, were caused by the bunched arrivals of a dozen delayed flights after midnight, stretching the city’s second airport’s capacities to the limit.

The resulting chaos sparked a swift response from Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who ordered aviation authorities to resolve the matter fast. Days later, when similarly hellish queues were reported at the city’s main Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Prayuth ordered the Royal Thai Airforce to help out at immigration and customs.

Thailand’s ruling junta takes tourism seriously – and for good reason. Tourism, boosted by a surge in Chinese arrivals, has been one of the few bright spots in the economy since General Prayuth and military coup-makers seized power in May 2014.

Over the past three and a half years, while the regime has suppressed any peep of dissent and put an end to the disruptive street protests that plagued the capital between 2005 to 2014, periodically closing down popular tourist neighborhoods for months and in 2008 resulting in the week-long closure of Bangkok’s two airports, tourists have returned in swarms.

“After this junta came in it has been quiet, no political problems, so the tourism has been quite strong because of the stability,” said Supawan Tnomkietipume, president of the Thai Hotels Association.

Overlooking the slow start in 2014, when international tourist arrivals declined 7% year-on-year to 24.8 million, they jumped to 29.9 million in 2015 (up 20.6% y-on-y) and hit a historic high of 32.6 million in 2016 (up 8.9% y-on-y.)

This year is well on its way to being another bumper tourist crop, with 17.3 million arrivals reported in the first half, up 4.4% y-on-y, despite a crackdown on the so called “zero-dollar” Chinese tours scam that began in August 2016, according to Bank of Thailand figures.

The government hopes to attract 35 million tourists by year-end.

Bangkok, Thailand - June 5, 2016: A large crowd of mainly Chinese tourists are standing at the entrance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.  Several people of mixed age, ethnicity and sex are walking.  Many are using or looking at mobile telephones.  The Chinese tourism market in South East Asia is expanding at a rapid rate.

A crowd of mainly Chinese tourists at the entrance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand on June 5, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Chinese tourists have been at the forefront of the recent influx, accounting for an estimated 26% of all arrivals between 2015-2016.

Last year the Thai government launched a crackdown on so-called “zero-dollar” Chinese tour groups, a decades-old scam in which Chinese tourists are lured to the kingdom at ridiculously low rates but are guided to specific shops and outlets where they are induced to buy over-priced items of dubious value, for which the tour agents get kickbacks.

The crackdown on “zero-dollar” agents has had a negative impact on Chinese tourist arrivals over the past 10 months.

ForwardKeys, a data and IT company that monitors future travel trends for national tourism boards and airlines, says Chinese group arrivals to Thailand fell by 25% during the July 2016 to June 2017 period, while Chinese free independent traveler (FIT) traffic increased by 6%.

Forward bookings for the August 2017 to December 2017 period show Chinese group arrivals declining 15% while FITs are set to grow 25.6%.

A Thai classical dancer poses for photos at the Erawan shrine in central of Bangkok, Thailand, August 30, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

Thailand and its neighbors have benefitted from the mounting tensions on the Korea Peninsula, which has diverted Chinese tourism traffic in particular to Southeast Asia, with groups tours now on the rise particularly to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Even though Thailand is losing out on some of the Chinese group tour business, Chinese tourists overall will still account for about 26% of the total arrivals this year. Because there are more FITs coming, they may spend more money than their zero-dollar counterparts, the Kasikorn Research Center (KRC) said.

The think tank estimates that Chinese tourism receipts will hit 470 billion baht (US$14 billion) this year, up about 7% on last year’s figures. A recent KSC survey of Chinese tourist arrivals in Bangkok found that 83.4% of them agreed with the crackdown on “zero-dollar” tours and 98% considered Thailand their top destination in Asia.

Asian tourist arrivals are broadly on an upswing. ForwardKeys says air flight bookings to Thailand for the second half of 2017 are up 12% by South Koreans, 15% by Japanese, 9% by Australians and 35% by Indians.

Thailand has been a popular mass tourism destination since 1986, when the kingdom launched its first ‘Visit Thailand Year’, a marketing success story that quickly maxed out the country’s hotels, airports and attractions.

Crowd on Khao San Road in Bangkok

Tourist crowds in the backpacker district of Khao San Road in Bangkok. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Since then the sector has been the leading earner of foreign exchange and a leading contributor to gross domestic product (GDP). It has also proven a face saver for a military regime that have seen flaccid GDP growth between 2014-2016, which would have been even more limp without tourism.

“Tourism accounts for almost 15% of GDP and its contribution to GDP growth in 2015 and 2016 was around 2.5% and 1.6% of 2.9% and 3.2% GDP [growth], respectively,” said Nattaporn Triratanasirikul, head of research for macroeconomics at KRC. “Under the scenario that tourism had not come back strong in 2015 and 2016, GDP growth would have gone down to between 1.9-2.5%,” she said.

There is plenty to lament about mass tourism, starting with the degradation is has wrought on Thailand’s natural environment and once pristine beaches to the rise in tourism-related crimes and scams that tarnish the country’s reputation abroad. But no one denies that the sector has contributed to wealth distribution.

“The tourism sector is largely associated with SMEs in the service sector, such as hotels and restaurants,” Nattaporn said. While SMEs only account for 30% and 23.4% of the total GDP generated by trade and manufacturing sectors, respectively, they account for 40.6% of the service sector where the majority is from tourism’s contribution.

“Growing GDP generated from SMEs related to the tourism sector implies more distributed income to provinces across the country, although it might not be evenly,” she said.

Nowhere is the proliferation of new business opportunities more obvious than in Thailand’s hotel sector. “If you are talking about the whole country, for registered hotels there are 300,000 hotel rooms plus,” said Supawan. “And another 300,000 rooms in unregistered hotels.”

"Bangkok, Thailand - July 3, 2012: Thai women posing with a soldier of the Royal Guards at the entrance of the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, located on the Wat Phra Kaew temple complex."

Tourists posing with a soldier of the Royal Guards at the entrance of Bangkok’s Grand Palace in a file photo. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Singapore, by contrast, had 63,850 hotel rooms on offer last year, and none of them were unregistered. Because of the strict controls Singapore places on the supply side of hotels, room rates are considerably higher than they are in Thailand where the government cannot stop unregistered hotels from proliferating.

“Because the number of unregistered hotels increases every year it creates an oversupply situation, and because of the oversupply we cannot increase prices,” Supawan said.

Thus far, the ruling regime has yet to launch a serious crackdown on unregistered hotels, which would include the new trend of Air B&B establishments catering to the millennial market, including a large segment of the Chinese FITs.

Looking on the bright side, this is more good news for Thailand’s SME hotel entrepreneurs and the distribution of wealth. “With the new trend towards FITs the new hotels will be a smaller size, so this will be a good opportunity for newcomers in the hotel business,” Supawan said. “Even upcountry there are a lot of newcomers.”

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