Chinese tourists accounted for nearly a third of Thailand’s visitors prior to Covid, so their pending return has local businesses hoping for a much needed boost but a full recovery from the crisis remains a way off.

Thai government and industry estimates on Chinese visitor numbers for next year range from 3 million to 5 million — a wide spread that reflects some uncertainty over the eagerness and ability of people to travel after Beijing scraps quarantine on Jan. 8. Some places are also tightening rules on travellers from China as infections surge there, though Thailand has yet to do so.

Some 11.5 million Chinese visitors went to places like Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai in 2019. While next year’s numbers are set to be much lower, it will still be difficult for Thailand’s hotels, travel firms and entertainment venues to cope. Most businesses aren’t financially able to hire or upgrade facilities quickly after a dry spell of more than two years, during which millions of people changed jobs or headed back to family-run farms.

A labor shortage will be a major issue in seaside provinces like Phuket because of a mismatch between rising demand and inadequate personnel, said Suksit Suvunditkul, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter. Top-end hotels are offering bonuses to entice back former employees, he said. “A full recovery hinges on arrivals from China, which are not expected to return en masse in the first half of 2023.”

Chinese tourists won’t bring a flood of cash to everyone either. Before the pandemic, many came on “zero-dollar” packages — pre-paid tours in which participants are shepherded through overpriced stores, restaurants, hotels and even massage parlors owned by Chinese nationals through Thai nominees.

“We used to talk about how post-pandemic tourism quality should improve, but a familiar scenario is likely to occur again once tour groups from China return,” said Wirote Sitaprasertnand, president of the Professional Tourist Guide Association of Thailand.

Fewer than a quarter of Thailand’s 5,000 registered Mandarin-speaking local guides are working actively, added Wirote, who expects 300,000 Chinese travelers at most to come to the country in the first quarter.

“It could take another year before labor confidence in the hospitality industry returns, as workers assess the recovery situation before deciding whether to make a comeback or not,” said Kongsak Koopongsakorn, a hotelier and vice president of the Phuket Chamber of Commerce.

The government has rolled out measures to develop skills and provide training for the unemployed in an attempt to address any shortage, while tourism authorities have proposed offering Covid booster shots to workers and tourists. Phuket’s private sector has also requested the Labor Ministry to allow more migrant workers to register for jobs in the hospitality industry, Kongsak said.

While beaches, restaurants, shopping malls and massage shops are major magnets to Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, one of the newest attractions — cannabis cafes — may be tempting to young Chinese tourists, even though the government in Beijing has warned its citizens.

Thailand decriminalized marijuana in June, prompting cannabis cafes to pop up around the country. In just a three-street section of the Asoke district in central Bangkok, near where scenes for the film “The Hangover Part 2” were filmed, about 20 stores, dispensaries and street vendors now sell weed.

Young Chinese tourists could provide “considerable demand,” said Rattapon Sanrak, founder of Highland, a dispensary in Bangkok, which also serves non-weed food and beverages. But because the sector is new and rules are evolving, “there could also be zero-dollar tourism for cannabis” as Chinese entrepreneurs set up their own operations, he said.

The Tourism Authority said Wednesday it expects 25 million international visitors in 2023, which is slightly more than half the 2019 level. The second half of this year featured a surge of high-spenders from the US and Europe trying to escape winter, helping Thailand exceed its annual foreign-tourism target by 15% to reach 11.5 million. Singapore, Malaysia and India were also among key sources of visitors.

“China reopening in early 2023 will spur Thailand’s tourism and exports sooner than expected and boost economic recovery,” Asia Plus Securities analysts including Therdsak Thaveeteeratham wrote in a report. The easing will be positive for tourism stocks like Airports of Thailand Pcl, Erawan Group Pcl and Central Plaza Hotel Pcl, they said.

Before the pandemic, foreign tourism provided 12% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and as much as 18% when including activity by locals, according to government data. Total revenue for both segments this year is tipped at 1.5 trillion baht ($43 billion), about half the total three years ago, according to the Tourism Authority.

“Mass tourism has yet to reemerge because Chinese tourists are still absent,” said Suksit of the hotels association.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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