CHIANG RAI, 10 October 2018: Just a few months back, the debate in Thailand focused on the threat of overtourism, a word we coined to explain how our destinations are at risk from over crowding.
We looked at travel forecasts and based on the more than 9 million Chinese tourists, who visited Thailand in 2017, the arithmetic suggested 2018 would push the total beyond 10 million.
Experts called for capacity caps at resorts and a concerted effort to cool the tourism temperature to counter the threat of “overtourism,” especially from China.
Tourism was accelerating almost out of control. Brakes should be applied experts warned, but no one dared to slam on the brakes. In the end, Thailand’s notorious security shortcomings stopped the Chinese travel boom in its tracks.
If we believe what tourism leaders and market snapshots tell us, Chinese tourists are going elsewhere and the exodus could cut travel by as much as 25% by year-end. It is probably more likely to downgrade to a conservative decline of 8 to 10%. However, even that could represent a million Chinese tourists who for various reasons decide Thailand is not a welcoming paradise any more.
When Chinese tourists descend on Thailand in their thousands we complain that they are a nuisance and our beaches are being destroyed, but when they oblige and take their holiday cash elsewhere, we panic and want them all back in hurry.
Apparently, we are not sure what we really want. Common sense says that if the objective is to establish sustainable tourism for the long-term we need to control growth and prioritise now.
The China travel market is vast and diverse. We can focus on niches, up-scale markets and luxury travel to end the reliance on cheap charter holidays if we are up to the challenge.
The options are there supported by plenty of evidence that clearly shows China’s huge outbound travel market extends to luxury and upscale travel. But the popular notion is that every Chinese visiting Thailand is on a zero-dollar tour and that’s the sum total of world’s biggest travel market.
Of course, the July boat accident, a dengue fever outbreak and a security guard caught slapping a Chinese tourist are negatives that applied the brakes on travel bookings. Hoteliers complain that bookings for beach holidays in Phuket are down 50% for the last quarter and recovery might not kick-in until the 2019 Chinese New Year.
At the end of August, Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports reported 7.7 million Chinese had visited the country during the first eight months. That is just 2.3 million short of the 10 million mark. It very likely that despite the gloom and doom the year will close with around 9 million Chinese visits, matching the 2017 count give or take a hundred.
Instead of papering over the cracks, apologising and generally kowtowing to China’s tourism mandarins there are practical steps we could take. One would involve reviewing the visa-on-arrival system that clogs up airports already heavily congested and possibly replacing it with an eVisa online for Chinese travellers. It’s convenient, fraud proof, corruption resistant and very user friendly with online payments.
Back in 2016 the former minister of tourism told TTR Weekly an eVisa scheme would be up and running by 2017. It didn’t happen and now airports are jammed packed with people queuing for a VOA when an efficient eVisa programme would have resolved congestion and ended the notorious THB300 tip that gets added to the THB2,000 visa-on-arrival fee.
There are probably around 4 million Chinese tourists who queue for a visa-on-arrival at Thai airports annually. I wonder what it would take to get the eVisa scheme on the table. Perhaps an audit to determine the cost of issuing each Visa-on-arrival would help. For example if the Immigration Bureau paid commercial rates for airport space for its VOA service, would an eVisa be a more cost effective solution?