By Kwang Jiraporn Kuhakan
PHUKET, Thailand – Entrepreneurs on Thailand’s holiday island of Phuket are bracing enthusiastically for the long-awaited return of Chinese tourists, hoping China’s reopening and dismantling of its strict COVID-19 curbs can boost their flagging businesses.
In the year before the pandemic, nearly a third of Thailand’s visitors were Chinese tourists, who once accounted for annual global spending of quarter of a trillion dollars on their travels.
“I’m so ready to welcome Chinese tourists. I’m so ready because with them here it’s good money,” said speedboat driver Wittaya Yooyen, 56, who operates at Patong beach, the island’s biggest draw.
“It’s good that the Chinese are coming, and I’m not worried about COVID-19.”
His watersports business, which offers paragliding, water skiing and other activities, suffered heavy losses during the pandemic, when Thailand’s strict entry conditions and long mandatory quarantine periods kept visitors at bay.
With tourism picking up widely in the region from pent up demand and the end of most travel curbs, Asia’s holiday hotspots are welcoming the return of Chinese tourists, who are celebrating the Lunar New Year.
Thailand’s government is expecting at least five million Chinese tourist arrivals this year, with 300,000 in the first quarter.
Phuket is expected to get a much-needed payday from a Chinese influx, with the island typically attracting a quarter of Thailand annual arrivals.
With its economy almost entirely dependent on tourism, many Phuket businesses were crippled by the coronavirus. Some, like Mr. Good’s Seafood restaurant in Patong, were forced to cut staff dramatically.
“When Chinese tour groups come, they order quite a lot, and I miss that momentum we used to have four years ago,” said Rinnicha Vanichworachod, its assistant manager.
“We aren’t ready to provide full service as we don’t have enough staff.”