Thailand is on track to meet the government’s tourism target for 2023, though a full recovery from the downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic likely remains several years off.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said yesterday that the country had welcomed 25.8 million foreign tourists from January 1 to November 11, The Nation reported. With a further 2 million international visitors expected to come to Thailand in December, the country is in reach of its target of 28 million visitors for 2023.
According to the TAT, a surge in visitors from neighboring Malaysia has helped to offset the slower than expected recovery of international visitors from China, which dominated the country’s inbound tourism numbers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of visitors from Malaysia more than doubled from last year to 4.59 million, with each spending an average of 26,000 baht ($736).
Thailand’s tourism industry imploded during COVID-19, which saw international tourist numbers fall from more than 40 million in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, to 6.7 million in 2020 and then to just 428,000 in 2021.
Given the importance of tourism to Thailand’s economy, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has prioritized its recovery as part of his broader focus on economic growth. In September, shortly after Srettha took office, Chai Wacharonke, a spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister, told The Associated Press that the tourism industry is “the only economic machine remaining that can be driven with hope to generate new income quickly for Thailand.”
Since taking office, his government has temporarily waived visas for travelers from China, Kazakhstan, Russia, India, and Taiwan, and taken steps to reduce bottlenecks at the country’s airports.
The figures for 2023 suggest that these measures have had some effect. This year’s figures certainly mark a significant increase on 2022, when a total of 11.15 million international visitors visited the country, exceeding the government’s target of 10 million. The three leading countries of origin last year were Malaysia, India, and Singapore.
To be sure, Thailand is still well short of its pre-pandemic peak. The TAT also said that despite meeting its target for visitor numbers in 2023, the projected income from these visitors was set to fall around 400 billion baht ($11.3 billion) short of its target.
According to the TAT, this is due in part to the increased cost of international travel, which has reduced the number of long-haul travelers, who tend to stay longer and spend more, in favor of visitors from countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
The TAT data also shows that the number of tourists from China continues to lag behind expectations. According to The Nation, around 3.5 million Chinese visitors are likely to visit in 2023, raising them up into second place behind Malaysians, but falling short of the TAT’s projection of 4-4.4 million. The next largest cohorts of visitors this year are from South Korea (1.5 million), India (1.5 million), and Russia (1.3 million).
The government initially sought to attract 5 million Chinese tourists in 2023 – less than half of the more than 10 million Chinese visitors who traveled to Thailand in 2019 – but the recovery has been sluggish due to China’s stringent “zero COVID” policy and the country’s current economic downturn.
The TAT has announced aggressive and optimistic targets for 2024, hoping to attract 35 million visitors from abroad including 8.2 million from China. To achieve this, the TAT is considering a range of further inducements, including an extension of visa durations for certain nationalities and the introduction of multiple entry visas. It is also considering extending the visa exemption for Chinese tourists, which is set to expire at the end of February.