The love affair between Chinese tourists and Thailand hit its first big reality check last month, according to Vichit Prakobgosol, one of the matchmakers who helped the relationship blossom.
The Thai-Chinese tour operator’s CCT Group saw the number of Chinese visitors plunge after street protests convulsed Bangkok – with the prospect of more trouble to come as opposition activists started blocking roads late yesterday to shut down the city from today. “January is normally high season because of Chinese New Year but, if the situation worsens, volumes may be down more than 50 per cent,” said Mr Vichit, who founded CCT a quarter of a century ago.
His company welcomed 7,000 Chinese arrivals to the Thai capital in December, compared with an expected minimum of 15,000.
“Chinese tourists are especially frightened by the so-called shutdown of Bangkok, as they understand it to mean they cannot enter or exit the city,” he added.
Mr Vichit’s worries are shared by others in Thailand’s jittery tourist industry, who fear the deepening political crisis could bring an abrupt halt to a boom seen before big demonstrations began in November.
As protesters battle to derail elections due on February 2, businesses are hoping a mix of a weakening national economy and political instability won’t destroy “Teflon” Thailand’s reputation for shrugging off financial and reputational troubles rather than seeing them stick.
“The situation for Thai travel isn’t good at all in our agency this year,” said a manager of one international travel agency in south China, lamenting a sometimes violent crisis in which seven people were wounded when gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on anti-government protesters in Bangkok early on Saturday. “In the past, we usually promoted Bangkok for the Chinese New Year – but this year, we replaced it with islands in southeast Asian countries.”
The nerves in the run-up to Chinese New Year on January 31 reflect China’s importance to a Thai tourist industry that accounts for up to 10 per cent of Thai gross domestic product.
Much of the official 20 per cent growth in the sector to October last year has come from newly wealthy middle-class Chinese, attracted by publicity such as the wildly popular 2012 Chinese comedy movie Lost in Thailand.
Some of those gains have already been reversed, thanks also to new rules in China that have pushed up the costs of foreign tourism by banning operators from charging commissions from shops they take their groups to visit.
The number of Chinese arrivals at Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport plummeted from almost 170,000 in December 2012 to fewer than 134,000 last month, say official data.
Even though some hotels in Bangkok are reporting falls in occupancy of 15 per cent or more, many other tourists are still coming through the capital to Thailand’s island resorts as normal: arrivals of both US and British nationals at Suvarnabhumi rose slightly year on year in December.
Bangkok’s streets hardly feel empty either, with foreigners swarming around popular tourist areas such as the upmarket Ratchaprasong mall district and the choked pavements of the Silom Road night market.
And the protests are an extra attraction for some visitors, such as the Spanish tourist who pitched up on his bike this week to an opposition camp outside the prime minister’s offices and quizzed demonstrators on whether their movement resembled Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for Indian independence.
But, while the slick PR videos for a country where “happiness has a thousand faces” have never exactly reflected some of its grittier truths, Chinese media and others are pointing increasingly to the gap between Thailand’s image and actual events.
As a reporter for China’s state-run Global Times put it in an article last month: “My recent visit to Thailand left me with the impression that this southeast Asian country’s gentle smile can become a scowl in the face of political unrest.”
Now Mr Vichit just wants to see Thai tourism and other businesses repeat their success in shrugging off the effects of previous protracted protests in the capital in 2008 and 2010.
“If the political tension is resolved quickly it will only take one month for the Chinese to flood back into Bangkok,” he said.
Additional reporting by Panvadee Uraisin, Bangkok
官方统计数字显示，去年1-10月泰国旅游业产值增长20%，这在很大程度上得益于中国新兴富有中产阶级，2012年极受欢迎的中国喜剧电影《人再囧途之泰囧》(Lost in Thailand)等宣传材料吸引了他们。