Thailand receives the first Chinese visitors under a new visa-free policy to boost tourism

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BANGKOK — Top Thai officials welcomed hundreds of Chinese tourists at Bangkok’s international airport on Monday, the first day of a new visa-free entry program that officials say 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 about 300 travelers from Shanghai. The surprised tourists were entertained by Thai traditional dancers and drummers inside the arrivals area at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

“We are confident that this policy will greatly boost the economy,” Srettha told reporters. He said that 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 rumors 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.

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 Feb. 29. Tourism Minister Sudawan Wangsuphakijkosol said there has been about a 30% surge in accommodation and flight bookings since the policy was announced.

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

The government proposed the visa exemption measure due to concern that the number of Chinese tourists might be lower than expected this year because of strict visa requirements. The target number of arrivals from China had been revised from 5 million to 3 million after a report from the state Tourism Authority of Thailand that around 1.4 million Chinese tourists came in the first six months.

Tourism Authority Director Thapanee Kiatphaibool said Monday that the authorities were confident the number of Chinese arrivals could hit 4 million-to-5 million after the visa-free program was introduced.

Thailand’s economy slumped during the pandemic as its huge tourism industry virtually collapsed. The country received about 40 million visitors in 2019, and the government estimated they spent 1.9 trillion baht ($53.2 billion) — an amount that plummeted by more than 99% by 2021, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Chai Wacharonke, a spokesperson for the prime minister, earlier said that Thailand received 15 million international visitors in the first seven months. He said the government aims to draw 28 million tourists and generate 1.4 trillion baht ($39.2 billion) in revenue in 2023.

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