Thailand’s tourist economy appears to be on the rebound as millions of international arrivals flock to the Southeast Asian country following COVID-19 border restrictions and closures. The government says it is highly likely that Thailand will meet its target of 10 million visitors by the end of the year.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT, recently announced that more than 7.3 million visitors arrived in the country from January to late October. As of October 1, Thailand dropped all remaining COVID-19 requirements, including proof of vaccination or rapid test results.
TAT Governor Yuthasak Supasorn said difficult times are past.
“Thailand is seeing its reports across the board — from ongoing tourism marketing and promoting to Amazing Thailand SHA health and safety standards put in place — paying off, with more than 7 million foreign tourists having already returned to our shores so far in 2022,” he said, referring to the Safety and Health Administration.
Thailand’s economy relies heavily on tourism. In 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s GDP, and around 20% of Thais were employed in the sector, according to the Bank of Thailand.
Thailand's GDP declined by 6% in 2020 amid the pandemic-fueled global economic downturn. Since its borders reopened, GDP has risen by 2.4% year on year in the first half of 2022, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said, citing a report by the National Economic and Social Development Council, The Nation newspaper reported.
Malaysia-based analyst Gary Bowerman says Thailand is once again leading the way for tourism in Southeast Asia.
“Pre-pandemic Thailand was the most visited country in Southeast Asia,” he said. “It was the first to try and reopen, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand [is] always very bullish; they always forecast quite high. They did everything they could to bring back tourism inbound. For Thailand it was all about inbound.”
Bowerman said 2022 has been an unusual year, so its expected visitor arrivals were forecast to be lower.
He described 2022 as a “very weird, compressed year.”
“Most countries in the region didn’t open for inbound or outbound until April this year, so it’s a kind of three-quarter year,” he said.
In 2019, Thailand’s inbound visitors amounted to over 39 million, the country’s highest number of arrivals to date.
Looking to 2023
Thai tourism officials are now predicting only up to 18 million visitors for 2023, with little hope that the Chinese market, which usually makes up nearly 30% of all Thailand arrivals, will pick up.
Bowerman says achieving those figures will take some time, especially amid uncertainty as to when Chinese tourists will enter the country in large numbers.
“To expect they will get 12 million Chinese tourists next year, when they only had 11 million in 2019, that’s a high figure,” Bowerman said. “I don’t think anyone expects China to open [until] at least May .... I don’t think we can take the China forecast very seriously.”
China is sticking with its “zero-COVID” policy some three years after the coronavirus was first detected in the city of Wuhan. Lockdowns in Chinese cities are still common, while economic trade has slowed, borders remain closed for international tourists and a quarantine remains in place for Chinese residents returning to the country.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has seen close to 3.9 million arrivals so far this year, according to tourism officials, and queues to pass through Customs have been long in recent weeks.
For Thailand’s business owners, the hordes of arrivals are a welcome sight.
Chan Holland, owner of Bangkok’s Canary Travel Thailand, says her bookings have increased since October, with most of her customers coming from Britain and European Union countries.
“Last year [we] probably had 10% [of our usual] customers. To compare, I think it is 80% better than last year,” she told VOA. “We are really happy and grateful for all the tourists we have right now. Welcome back to Thailand.”
Charlee Keardkumsap, the director of sales and marketing at Bandara Suites in Bangkok, told VOA that business has increased in recent months.
“Our business picked up more than 50% after [the country] reopened [for tourism],” he said, explaining that 2023 saw numerous first-quarter bookings of mixed clientele, and increased numbers of Asian tourists in recent months.
Amid the upbeat outlook, Thailand has been hosting meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, all year. Next week, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, along with leaders from countries including Australia, Canada and China, will be in Bangkok for an APEC summit, its first in-person talks in four years.