After almost three years of little to no business, Thai tour guide operator Anchalee Vittayanuntapornkul is more than relieved that Chinese tourists will soon be allowed to travel again. “I’m sure if you ask anyone in the tourism industry, the only nationality that they are waiting to see come back is the Chinese tourists,” says Anchalee, who is based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
On Sunday, China scrapped the requirement for inbound travellers to quarantine, making holidaying abroad much easier. The policy change is expected to boost the tourism sector across the wider region, including south-east Asia, which depended heavily on Chinese travellers before the pandemic.
Anchalee, owner of CM Paradise Tour, has already hired extra Chinese speakers and drivers to take groups on tours of Chiang Mai’s famous Doi Suthep temple, its waterfalls and mountainous landscapes.
When the scrapping of quarantine was announced last month, online travel sites reported immediate spikes in bookings and searches. One platform, Qunar, says it saw a seven-fold increase in flight searches within 15 minutes, with Thailand, Japan and South Korea among the top destinations.
China’s dismantling of its zero-Covid policy, and the surge in cases that followed, which quickly overwhelmed hospitals, has prompted about a dozen countries globally to impose new requirements for travellers from China. The UK, India and the US are among various countries now requiring a Covid test for arrivals from China.
‘Everybody needs work’
South-east Asian countries have not introduced rules specifically for Chinese tourists, however. Thailand will, according to reports, require all travellers to provide proof of vaccination or proof of recovery from Covid over the past six months, but the final details have not yet been announced. Neighbouring Malaysia has said it will screen all incoming travellers for fever, with the Malaysian prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, saying that policies will not be “discriminating [against] any countries”.
When some in Malaysia reacted negatively to the news that China was reopening, the country’s tourism minister, Tiong King Sing, advised people to “be cautious with their words” and not to create the impression that the country was unwelcoming, local media reported.
Piyanut Intarachai, who runs a restaurant in Chiang Mai, says screening tourists who arrive is a good idea. “They should check the vaccination cards and even ask for a Covid test. I know it doesn’t give 100% protection, but it is still better than nothing.”
But Piyanut adds that he isn’t worried about Covid. “Covid is everywhere, not only in China. There are still new cases every day here. But with the current strain, it’s milder. Everybody needs work, and income to live their life.”
Before the pandemic, tourists would queue up at Piyanut’s restaurant, Kao Soy Nimman, eager to try his speciality, Khao Soi – a coconut curry noodle soup famous in northern Thailand. The vast majority of his customers were from China, he says. Then Covid hit, and visitors disappeared almost overnight. “It was just empty, all gone, no income.”
Pre-pandemic, China was one of the biggest sources of tourists for countries across the region, and it accounted for about a third of visitors to Thailand.
The Thai authorities are predicting around 5 million Chinese tourists will visit this year – welcome news for the tourism sector, though still less than half the number who arrived in 2019.
Tourism operators hopeful
The lack of requirements targeted at Chinese tourists might make south-east Asia a more welcoming destination for those who do choose to travel, says Hannah Pearson, founding partner of the travel consultancy Pear Anderson.
But she adds that Thailand and neighbouring countries are unlikely to see huge numbers of arrivals, saying: “There just isn’t the air capacity for that.”
Flight capacity for south-east Asia is still a third down on 2019, Pearson says, adding this is likely exacerbated by high fuel costs. “When operational costs are higher, that means that airlines are more reluctant to restore those capacities or those flight frequencies.” If airlines are unsure there will be demand, they don’t want to put on extra flights and risk losing money.
Anchalee, however, is hopeful. Her phone began ringing with enquiries almost as soon as the announcement was made that China would reopen. Already she is booked up until the end of March.
“I believe that Chinese tourists will come back to Thailand even more than before, because they could not go out for three years,” she says. “We are ready. I think the worst and the hardest part of the Covid time has already passed.”