The current dependence on Chinese tourists, especially in Pattaya, has now started a hot debate about the future of Thai tourism. About one foreign tourist in five in the country as a whole is Chinese, producing a total of 4.6 million travellers from the communist giant. Some research has suggested that, although only one percent of Chinese nationals have so far visited Thailand, about 50 percent would like to do so.
The Chinese growing arrivals are fuelled by expanding budget-air routes which make a vacation much cheaper. The scheduled mega-expansion of U-Tapao airport, near Rayong, is expected within two years to lead to many more charter flights from Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese population centres. Although there are already many complaints in both Bangkok and Pattaya about oversized tour buses filled with Chinese tourists clogging up highways and streets, civic authorities are reluctant to do anything about the problem because these tourists are bringing much-needed revenue into the country.
Or are they? The vast majority of Chinese visitors are “zero tourists”, that is they pay for the entire holiday in advance in China and are dragooned by the tour operators who design all their activities on a virtual 24-hour basis, including where they sleep, eat and shop. Some travel commentators believe that the tourists are being ripped-off in all sorts of ways and that the inflated money they spend, for example on souvenirs and entrance fees, benefits only a small number of Thai operators.
There has been some evidence that the Chinese tourists with their children are even herded into sex shows, whether they want to or not, because such a visit is on their obligatory programme. Last year the Tourist Police received several complaints from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok about compulsory visits to entertainment palaces which could not be considered family-orientated by any stretch of the imagination. The Chinese embassy has also expressed concern about crime and cheating in Pattaya’s beachfront area.
A MasterCard annual survey on international holiday spending recently sent a warning to the Thai travel industry not to become too dependent on Chinese volume, finding that countries and destinations which have a diverse catchment have the most secure future. MasterCard points to the possibility that a sustained economic downturn in the Chinese economy could have a devastating effect on the Thai tourist industry. But Thai travel gurus say that the Chinese have kept tourism afloat after the disappearance of so many Russians when the collapse of the ruble doubled the cost of a foreign vacation.
Moreover, there has been negative coverage of the behaviour of some Chinese tourists whilst on holiday in Thailand. A temple in Chiang Rai temporarily shut its door to Chinese visitors after allegedly disrespectful acts by visitors. In the Pattaya area, social media has shown several examples of cultural “shock” including changing a baby’s nappy on a restaurant table and ignorance about restroom protocol. Equally, it can be pointed out that the conduct of some western visitors leaves much to be desired.
Pattaya City Hall told Pattaya Today that officials are aware of the problems. Extra parking facilities for large vehicles is under active consideration near Bali Hai and handbooks of protocol for Chinese visitors in their own language were now being distributed along with flight tickets. But it was stressed that Chinese tourists in Pattaya are currently spending more than any other nationality. A suggestion that there should be a limit on the size of coaches allowed on Pattaya sois is said to be under review as a way of reducing traffic mayhem.
In the medium term, optimists say that the dependence on Chinese visitors will right itself. For example, serious attempts are now being made to improve Pattaya’s transport infrastructure overall, including ring roads and an underground tunnel for through traffic on Sukhumvit Highway. A Japanese proposal to help build a high-speed rail link from Bangkok to Rayong is also in the pipeline. It is believed that such developments, together with Pattaya’s increasingly upscale image as regards facilities and entertainment, will ensure a truly international clientele. However, most of these initiatives are not scheduled to bear fruit until the next decade when, in the words of City Hall, Pattaya should become “the Thai Riviera”.
In the meantime, Pattaya will muddle through. It always has.