This year Phuket Governor Phakaphong Tavipatana announced that the nine days of Vegetarian Festival events are expected to generate some B2 billion in tourism revenue for the island (See page 10).
However, that number comes despite having more Chinese tourists on the island at this time of year than ever before – regardless of the slew of critical factors deterring tourists from coming to Phuket, or even Thailand in general, in the current economic climate.
The forecast is also B1bn short of the B3bn forecast given by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) five years ago.
Phuket Tourism Council President Sarayut Mallam declined to comment on Ministry of Tourism & Sports statistics reporting 1,031,675 Chinese tourist arrivals in August (+18.89% year on year), bouncing back from 794,913 in May, the lowest so far for the year.
In 2014, when the TAT announced its predicted B3bn tourism revenue boost from the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand had 4,636,298 Chinese tourist for the whole year.
In comparison, Thailand this year has already had 7,665,901 Chinese tourists from Jan through August alone. And still the clouds hover over the festival as a genuinely beneficial for tourism.
Instead, Mr Sarayut said, “We want to have fewer tourists who spend more money – to boost tourism revenue in Phuket.”
Mr Sarayut then added, “We believe that everything will be better in January, February and March in 2020.”
However, Mr Sarayut did recognise that the annual festival is losing its appeal, even among Chinese visitors.
“Chinese tourists are not overly impressed by the festival just because it is from Chinese culture, they have Chinese culture at home. And not many Chinese people believe in the spirituality and rituals of the Vegetarian Festival. Most of them do not believe in it, they are more interested in the physical world,” he said.
“Also, Chinese people are changing. They like to go shopping and eating more than join ritual ceremonies,” he added.
“Chinese tourists are not interested in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival anymore. Only a small number of them join the events. Also, tour agents [in China] do not promote the festival because they know their clients well.” Mr Sarayut said.
Mr Sarayut also acknowledged a slew of factors already affecting the number of Chinese tourists coming to Phuket.
“The global economic slowdown, (US-China) trade war, memories of the Phoenix disaster, selfish behavior by local vendors and business owners – this all affects tourists deciding whether to travel to Phuket. Altogether, this also makes for fewer tourists coming to join the Vegetarian Festival,” he said.
“Just being a ‘good host’ to Chinese tourists – and other nationalities – would be a good factor in helping tourists decide. That is what we really need,” Mr Sarayut explained.
Bhuritt Maswongssa, General Manager of the Patong Resort Hotel and member of the Andaman Tourism Development Committee under the Ministry of Tourism & Sports, agreed.
“There are many factors that are causing fewer Chinese tourists to visit during Golden Week (national week of holidays in China), but there are also factors in Phuket that are contributing to the problem,” he said.
“First, is the Phoenix boat accident, which has not been clarified yet, so that reduces tourists’ confidence about safety of their lives and property (while on holiday in Phuket),” Mr Bhuritt said.
“Regarding the safety of lives and property, in the past five years how many Chinese have died in Thailand?” he posed.
“Second, is the announcement about the closure of Maya Bay at Phi Phi Island, which has led many tourists to misunderstand that the whole island is closed,” he added.
Mr Bhuritt also noted that Phuket was now facing increasing ,competition from neighbouring countries in luring tourists.
“Tourism in neighboring countries is growing while in Thailand it is slowing down. Vietnam is becoming popular among Russian, Chinese, Australian, Japanese and American tourists,” he said.
Mr Bhuritt also included political instability and terrorism in his list of factors negatively affecting tourism, along with the current global economic climate and the strength of the baht.
“The global economy slowing down has weakened many currencies while the Thai baht has grown stronger. If Chinese tourists come to Thailand, they have to spend much more money than going to other countries. So now Chinese are choosing to go to Japan or Spain instead for the national day holidays this year,” he noted.
“The collapse of the big tour company Thomas Cook is another factor, which right now has resulted in a lot of operators being unable to claim outstanding payments,” he said.
Another factor being overlooked is rising oil prices affecting flight operators’ decision to cut certain routes, Mr Bhuritt added.
“Some airlines were losing money flying to Thailand because of the oil prices, so they stop operating charter flights,” he said.
“At the same time, [because of oil prices] low-cost airlines are unable to operate medium-haul flights from Beijing, Shanghai or Europe, so tourists have to take expensive flights. With very high expenses, tourists hesitate and think more carefully about their trip,” he added.
“All of this is influencing the number of tourists at Vegetarian Festival this year,” Mr Bhurritt noted.
Phuket Tourist Association President Bhummikitti Ruktaengam this week told the Bangkok Post that even though surge in the number Chinese tourists was expected during the Golden Week holidays, the tourism industry was prepared for these tourists to spend less than previously due to higher costs associated with visiting as a result of the strong Thai baht.
Speaking to The Phuket News this week, Mr Bhummikitti confirmed that he expected a surge in the number of Chinese tourists coming to Phuket during the Golden Week.
“We expect 7-8% more Chinese tourists than last year for the 10-day Golden Week holidays,” he said.
However, he declined to respond on how having more Chinese tourists would result in reduced tourism overall during the period.
“I can’t comment about tourism revenue in 2014, but most Chinese tourists in Phuket today are either travelling with small tour groups or are travelling as FITs (free, independent travellers),” Mr Bhummikitti said.
He also pointed out that it was his understanding that the are more Chinese tourists travelling in Phuket as FITs than with small tour groups.