As Chinese New Year celebrations start tomorrow, Phuket is starting to see an upswing in local tourism, which was dealt a major blow after the Phoenix boat tragedy last year that killed 47 Chinese tourists.
The boat capsized amid bad weather on July 5 as it was carrying 101 people back to the resort island.
The accident hit the tourism industry hard, with thousands of hotel cancellations and six Chinese carriers halting their flights between China and Phuket.
But a large number of visitors from China, the largest source of visitors to Phuket, will return this week thanks to attempts to improve safety standards.
Tourism officials and businessmen welcomed the change in their fortunes last Tuesday (Jan 29) while attending the Lantern Festival in Phuket municipality.
Hoteliers earlier expected Chinese tourists would return to Phuket by October of last year or by New Year at the latest after the government campaigned to boost tourist confidence in safer and happier trips.
“But that did not happen,” Kongsak Khuphongsakon, chairman of the southern chapter of the Thai Hotels Association, told the Bangkok Post.
Even during the Golden Week, a one-week vacation to celebrate the National Day of the People’s Republic of China from Oct 1 to 7, many Chinese travellers opted not to spend time in Phuket.
However, the week-long Chinese New Year festival will be another story.
Hotel operators have reported higher numbers of room bookings between Feb 2 and 10, Mr Kongsak said. The occupancy rate has now risen to nearly 90%, out of about 100,000 hotel rooms, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
“The Chinese New Year festival alone will generate up to four billion baht,” Kanokkittika Kritwutthikon, chief of TAT’s Phuket office, said.
Compared with the number of tourists celebrating the festival in Phuket in 2018, this year’s arrivals are still down 30%, the Phuket-based Thai-Chinese Tourism Association’s deputy chairman Triwit Aphimuk said.
But, he said, Chinese New Year is playing a key role in reviving the bustling tourism atmosphere on the resort island.
Though the number of Chinese tourists stood at 2.1 million and brought in revenues of 400 billion baht in 2018, their numbers dropped sharply from August to November after the boat tragedy, according to TAT’s Phuket office.
“They started to return to Phuket last December, but most of them are FIT,” Ms Kanokkittika said, referring to what she calls free independent travellers (FIT), who prefer travelling without tourist guides.
Those travelling with tour agencies have also come, but “their numbers are still low”, she said.
At present, the FIT numbers made up more than 60% of all Chinese tourists in Phuket, with less than 30% for large tour groups, Mr Kongsak said.
One reason is that FIT is a “popular new trend” among tourists from China, he said. Prospective travellers just read online reviews from tourists and are equipped with all of the information that they want.
The tour agencies have, in contrast, plunged into the red after the deadly accident last summer.
The red lights of the Lantern Festival should at least allow agencies to breath a sigh of relief as Phuket begins to draw back Chinese tourists who come to experience the beach and charm of Sino-Portuguese buildings in Phuket’s Old Town.
Tourists will travel happily if all safety concerns and any inconveniences are removed. The government and tourist operators have launched various measures to achieve both of those goals.
Authorities have placed regulations on 24 piers around the island to ensure their services meet with safety standards.
Patrol boats will also keep tourist operators updated on weather conditions to avoid any unpleasant events.
Several million baht have been spent on improving facilities both on land and in the sea.
“That will also boost the morale of tour operators,” Thai-Chinese Tourism Association chairman Phichet Kittikomet said.
“I believe Chinese tourist numbers will increase by 10% as a result.”
The cabinet also agreed earlier this month to extend the waiver on the 2,000-baht visa-on-arrival fee for travellers from 20 countries, including China, until the end of April.
One of the first results of its new measures is the higher number of foreign tourists during the Chinese New Year.
While the situation in Phuket is showing a positive outlook, businessmen in the capital have to wait their turn to enjoy the same good fortune.
Entrepreneurs on a half-kilometre stretch of Pracha Rat Bamphen Road in Bangkok’s Huai Khwang district, which has been dubbed the “New Chinatown”, do not hold the same optimism on the number of Chinese tourists coming to Thailand this time of year.
An owner of a small retail store, who asked not to be named, said the number of Chinese customers and sales at her shop has fallen by half since July.
“My shop used to draw up to 50 Chinese customers daily, but now it has only 10-20 Chinese visitors per day. I don't see Chinese walking along this road as often as before, so I don't think there will be more visitors during the Chinese New Year,” she said.
The shop owner said she thought the boat tragedy and other accidents related to tourists from mainland China might be the reason behind the absence of Chinese tourists visiting Thailand.
A manager of a small hotel near Huai Khwang MRT station, who identified herself as Prang, said her hotel’s booking rate for Chinese tourists is also half of what it was six months ago.
“Luckily, Chinese only account for around 20% of our total guests, so the impact is not severe for us, but for other businesses in this area it must be worse,” she said.
Another Chinese restaurant operator, who asked not to be named, said it's not just the number of Chinese tourists in the new Chinatown that has decreased over the last six months, but the number of Chinese businesses there as well.
“Many shops have shut themselves down as the competition is more fierce now. When you rely on a specific group of customers and they instantly disappear, you cannot survive and make a profit. My restaurant can survive because I also have regular customers who live and work around here,” he said.
A Chinese couple visiting from Yunnan in southern China, who identified themselves as Mr and Mrs Chen, said the reason they chose to come to Thailand was to escape from the winter weather in China.
“We've come here several times because Thailand is not too far away and is inexpensive. We also love Thai street food culture, spas and Thai massage,” they said.
The couple said they were not at all concerned about safety while travelling in Thailand.
However, they admitted that there has been negative news that has affected perceptions of Thailand’s safety among Chinese people.
“But we don't think it will be permanent. If Thai authorities improve security measures to restore confidence, they can easily bring back Chinese visitors because Thailand is one of the most welcoming countries,” they said.
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