19th November 2023 – (Bangkok) Thailand has long been a favourite destination for Chinese vacationers seeking tropical beaches, delicious cuisine, cultural sites, and shopping bargains. In 2019, nearly 11 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, comprising over a quarter of all international arrivals. Tourism generated over $60 billion for the Thai economy that year, equivalent to about a fifth of GDP.
The COVID-19 pandemic decimated global travel. But Thailand hopes Chinese visitors will return en masse as borders reopen. It recently introduced visa-free entry for Chinese nationals to spur tourism. However, lingering safety fears following recent violent incidents could deter Chinese travelers. Addressing these perceptions is crucial for Thailand to revive this vital economic pillar.
Thailand faces an uphill battle rebuilding Chinese tourist confidence. A fatal shooting in September at a luxury Bangkok mall, Siam Paragon left a Chinese national dead. It received extensive media coverage in China. Though an isolated tragedy, it plays into safety worries that Thailand is afflicted by violent crime targeting Chinese. Even before the shooting, Thailand’s image had suffered from a hugely popular Chinese crime film called No More Bets. It depicts a sinister kidnapping network in Southeast Asia trapping Chinese citizens and forcing them into online gambling scams. Though fictional, it reinforced suspicions of the region as dangerously lawless.
These perceptions, however exaggerated, jeopardize Thailand’s tourism rebound. After the film’s August release, Chinese arrivals dropped nearly 20% in September compared to July. The shooting kept numbers depressed in October. China sent over 800,000 visitors monthly pre-pandemic, but Thailand saw only 230,000 in October 2022.
Visa waivers alone cannot overcome negative sentiments if people feel personally at risk. Chinese internet users answering a poll whether the shooting changed their Thailand travel plans mostly replied “yes, it’s too unsafe.” Restoring tourist confidence requires strategic messaging and visible safety improvements.
The Thai government should launch a promotional campaign in China emphasising Thailand’s safety for tourists. Thailand remains one of the safest places for travelers worldwide. The campaign can highlight lack of terrorist attacks and violent unrest that mar many destinations. It can also share crime statistics showing Thailand has lower homicide and gun violence rates than the United States, Australia or France – popular places Chinese visit without fear. Anecdotes of Chinese tourists enjoying Thailand without incident further humanise its safety. Successful marketing pivots imaginations from perceived danger to enjoyable reality. This begins restoring confidence to travel.
Visible security upgrades also help allay concerns. Thailand plans expanded CCTV coverage at major tourist sites to enable quick response to any incidents. It is also hiring more uniformed tourist police to visibly patrol areas frequented by Chinese visitors. Their friendly presence deters street crime and provides an approachable resource for tourist questions or problems. Thailand’s tourism ministry could highlight these enhancements when engaging Chinese travel partners.
Forming a high-level Thailand-China committee on tourism safety reassures China the issue is taken seriously. It provides a forum to discuss tourist security, prevention strategies, information sharing and swift investigation of any crimes involving Chinese visitors.
While stationing Chinese police officers in Thailand proved controversial, joint policing training and liaison officers build constructive ties. The committee can also coordinate protection for Chinese VIPs and delegation visits to Thailand. These actions emphasize Thailand’s commitment to Chinese guests.
Thailand must intensify efforts to dismantle overseas gambling scam networks implicated in exploiting Chinese citizens. Police have already conducted major raids rescuing hundreds of victims. Increased Rewards for informants who provide tips dismantling illegal call centers incentivise sources to come forward.
Bilateral police cooperation, like recent repatriation of Chinese detainees from Myanmar, further demonstrates Thailand’s resolve. Authorities should also pressure Cambodia to close illicit camps on its soil. A real reduction in scam activity removes excuses to avoid Thailand.
Thailand can adapt China’s own “Safe City” model of extensive CCTV networks and AI-enabled monitoring to further improve security in tourist zones. Chinese tech companies would bid enthusiastically to participate. This collaboration aligns interests around Thailand becoming a secure travel destination.
However, Thailand should ensure data access policies prevent any espionage risks from Chinese-operated camera systems. With reasonable safeguards, the program can enhance policing and provide made-in-China solutions to safety fears deterring their own citizens.
Soft power assurances accompany visible security measures. Cultural diplomacy includes arranging more exhibition tours of Thailand’s ancient heritage in Chinese museums. Student exchanges to build people-to-people bonds increase familiarity and dispel prejudices. An enhanced 24-hour hotline where Chinese embassy staff can immediately assist tourists in trouble provides a reassuring lifeline.
Repealing excessive pandemic restrictions and visa barriers signals Thailand eagerly welcoming back Chinese visitors rather than deterring them. Rewards for tourism companies hosting large numbers of Chinese travelers incentivises the industry to prioritize this market.
A comprehensive Thai Tourism Security Masterplan combines these initiatives into a coherent strategy. Detailed metrics and deadlines for bolstering security resources, collaborative mechanisms and traveler support services create a results-driven roadmap.
A review process informs continuous improvement and sustained commitment from all involved agencies. Branding the ambitious plan – like China’s successful poverty alleviation and anti-corruption drives – focuses bureaucratic energy and public opinion. This catalyzes an “all of nation” drive to make Thailand the secure destination of choice for Chinese holidaymakers once again.
The intrinsic appeal that made Thailand the top overseas destination for Chinese remains intact. But fears over safety must be dissolving before Chinese travel resumes with their previous enthusiasm. Clever marketing, visible security upgrades, high-level cooperation and cultural diplomacy together can rebuild confidence and catalyze Thailand’s tourism revival.