Saturday’s figure of 10,467 passengers, reported by the Phuket office of the Immigration Bureau, marks the highest number of international arrivals at Phuket airport on any one day since the tourism shutdown due to COVID-19 in 2020.
Out of 10,467 passengers who arrived on Nov 26, Thai nationals were only 147 with the rest representing other countries, led by Russia (2,778 visitors) and India (1223 visitors).
According to the data from Airports of Thailand (AoT) state corporation, which operates Phuket International Airport, the number of airplanes serviced on Nov 26 reached 219.
Arrivals from abroad for Nov 1-26 totaled 209,132 passengers compared to 163,449 people for the whole month of October. The top-10 markets for November include:
- Russia – 51667;
- India – 25344;
- Australia – 13411;
- UK – 11959;
- Germany – 10733;
- Singapore – 10630;
- Kazakhstan – 9140;
- Malaysia – 7771;
- USA – 6524;
- South Korea – 5566.
According to the figures above, every fourth arriving passenger from abroad passes immigration control at Phuket International Airport with a Russian passport.
“An unexpected surge”
Arrivals from the Russian Federation started to grow rapidly in late September. Yet it was not until this week when the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), one of Thailand’s leading tourism alliances, recognised the return of Russian tourists and said that “an unexpected surge in visitors from the Russian market during the cool season has tourism operators scrambling to cope.”
“Despite the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian tourism market has returned much quicker than expected,” said Bangkok Post in a Nov 26 story attributing these words to ATTA president Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn.
“Russian revolution surprises operators,” the headline of the story read.
One of the insights from Mr Sisdivachr was that tourism-related businesses that interact with the Russian market, including hotels, attractions, restaurants, and providers of tour guides and tour buses, need to prepare rapidly, while the authorities should help generate useful marketing information to assess the actual level of tourist demand.
Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of ATTA, added that it would take until the beginning of next year for the market to adjust to the influx of Russians.
"There are very few Thai operators who specialise in the Russian market – most of the players are native Russians," Mr Adith said.
"As these local specialists in the Russian market have yet to resume operations, Thai operators that are not fluent in this market are likely to face a few hiccups after being closed for a long time as they try to restart their business," he added.
According to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, Thailand has recorded increased arrivals from the Russian market this month via Aeroflot flights from Siberia and Russia’s Far East as well as chartered flights by big tour operators, including Pegas Touristik (Pegas Fly) and Anex Tour (Azur Air).
Pattaya and Phuket are the main destinations for chartered flights from Russia. Even the first direct flight to Thailand from Russia after the temporary suspension of air travel in March 2022 was a Pegas Fly flight and not a scheduled Aeroflot flight. Though both Pegas Fly and Aeroflot resumed flights to Phuket on the same day, Oct 30.
On Nov 26, U-Tapao Rayong-Pattaya International Airport welcomed its first direct charter flight by Azur Air from Russia. Some 230 passengers destined for Pattaya City arrived from Novosibirsk in what was perceived as “a sign that the popular coastal city’s tourism industry is on the road to recovery,” reported Bangkok Post today (Nov 27).
No such charter flight from Russia had landed at the U-Tapao airport for more than two years due to COVID-19, said the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Pattaya office, headed by Anoma Wongyai an ex-director of TAT offices in Phuket and Moscow.
The new route operated by Azur Air from Novosibirsk, “a city in Siberia in southern Russia”, shows that Pattaya’s tourism businesses are now ready to welcome tourists again, said Ms Anoma.
Remembering the numbers
As of Nov 24, Russia ranked 13th in terms of Thailand’s source markets with 227,430 arrivals. According to Phuket Immigration, some 69,600 of those visits were direct arrivals to Phuket during October and November (Nov 1-24) only.
The previous peak in Russian arrivals was recorded between Nov 1, 2021 (the launch of Test & Go system) and early March 2022 (temporary cessation of flights due to the Russian-Ukrainian war). No reliable statistics are readily available for the period.
Yet current figures are still much lower than what Thailand used to register before the COVID-19 crisis which began in 2020 and lasted for two years.
Historical data by the the Ministry of Tourism and Sports shows that Russian arrivals in the pre-pandemic years of 2018 and 2019 totaled 1.47 million (for each of the two years). The island of Phuket used to welcome nearly half of all the the visitors to Thailand from Russia, which was no less then 600,000-700,000 people, according to reports by Bill Barnett’s C9 Hotelworks.
The all-time maximum of nearly 1.75mn Russian arrivals was recorded in 2013. Then visits dropped to 1.6mn in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the beginning of war in Eastern Ukraine and devaluation of Russia’s national currency. In 2015, Russian arrivals plunged further down to around 884,000 and since 2016 began to recover slowly until reaching 1.47mn in 2018.