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Thailand receives first Chinese visitors under new visa-free policy

BANGKOK (AP) – Top Thai officials welcomed hundreds of Chinese tourists at Bangkok’s international airport yesterday, the first day of a new visa-free entry programme that officials said will boost the country’s tourism industry that was badly damaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin handed out gifts and posed for pictures as his tourism minister and other VIPs greeted some 300 travellers from Shanghai. The surprised tourists were entertained by Thai traditional dancers and drummers inside the arrivals area at Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

“We are confident that the policy will greatly boost the economy,” Srettha told reporters. He said the government plans to promote Thailand’s smaller cities as destinations for Chinese tourists to encourage them to stay longer and spend more.

Addressing safety concerns among tourists, Srettha said it was the top priority of the authorities. There have been reports and rumours widely circulating on Chinese social media about fraud and kidnapping in Thailand.

A tourist from Shanghai, who identified himself only as Dai, said he was impressed with the “very lively” welcome ceremony at the airport, though he noted that the immigration officer who checked his passport did not immediately know about the temporary visa exemption policy. He said he plans to stay for two weeks and visit other cities besides Bangkok, including Chiang Mai and Phuket.

Chinese tourists are welcomed by Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn province. PHOTO: AP

Peng Chunyu and Wan Yi, who arrived on the same flight, said it was a great policy for Thailand to allow visa-free entry for Chinese. The process was “very smooth”, said Peng. The two will stay for nine days and said they look forward to seeing Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Wat Arun temple and Chinatown.

The visa exemption, which also applies to visitors from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, will be effective until February 29. Tourism Minister Sudawan Wangsuphakijkosol said there has been about a 30-per-cent surge in accommodation and flight bookings since the policy was announced.

China over a decade ago became a major source of tourists to Thailand, with almost 11 million visitors in 2019, accounting for 27.6 per cent of all arrivals that year before the pandemic devastated the tourist market.

Thailand’s economy slumped during the pandemic as its huge tourism industry virtually collapsed. The country received some 40 million visitors in 2019, and the government estimated they spent THB1.9 trillion baht (USD53.2 billion) – an amount that plummeted by over 99 per cent by 2021, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

A spokesperson for the prime minister Chai Wacharonke earlier said Thailand received 15 million international visitors in the first seven months. He said the government aims to draw 28 million tourists and generate THB1.4 trillion baht (USD39.2 billion) in revenue in 2023.