According to UK government sources there are far fewer British nationals visiting Thailand these days. The number per year peaked in 2012 at about one million and has now slumped to under 450,000, or so it is alleged. The claims are made in the annual survey of British behavior abroad which in turn is based on figures of the Thai tourist industry.
However, some care must be exercised in believing the slump at its face value. Thai immigration authorities count every arrival at airports or land borders as a “new” person which can be misleading. For example, a foreigner entering Thailand three times in a year would clock up as three “new” arrivals.
In the past, many tourists (including Brits) used to make regular trips to the land borders of Thailand to renew their permission to stay even without a prior visa. Some of these visitors thus entered Thailand every single month, after crossing briefly into Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar, and thus appeared in the statistics as 12 arrivals in a calendar year.
As is well known, immigration rules have been progressively tightened since the military coup of May 2014. Foreigners without a prior visa and crossing into Thailand by land are now restricted to two entries per calendar year. There is no formal restriction on such arrivals by air, although immigration officers can refuse entry if they believe the visitor is coming too often without good reason. There is no problem by land or air if the foreigner has a valid and prior double- or multiple-entry visa or an unexpired re-entry permit.
In other words, there probably never were a million UK visitors to Thailand every year because of the double, triple or whatever counting of arriving individuals. 450,000 is likely a more accurate total although boosted by expats with one-year visas or work permits who still travel in and out of the country on a regular basis. An immigration source told Pattaya Today that each arrival at land crossings or airports still counts as “plus one” irrespective of previous travel history.
But some Pattaya business sources told Pattaya Today that, statistical quirks notwithstanding, there has certainly been a drop in the number of Britons coming to this resort. They point to data from hotels which show increasing total of Asian guests whilst the total of ‘farang’ arrivals drops steadily every year. Bar owners, especially in South Pattaya which was traditionally a British hotspot, said UK nationals were now much less in evidence on Walking Street and in the open bars of Soi Buakhao. The British numbers attending traditionally popular venues, including quiz nights and some expat clubs, are said to be down.
The reasons are a matter for speculation but probably include negative international publicity (the Koh Tao murders), the fall in the value of the pound since last year’s Brexit referendum and the attractions of neighbouring countries. For example, long-stay expats can obtain 10-year visas in Malaysia which include the right to purchase property and to work part-time in certain sectors. Others are lured by the easy visa rules in Cambodia where one-year permissions to stay can be obtained for as little as $300 and little or no paperwork. The relaxation of visa rules in Vietnam, which currently allows UK nationals to stay a month without a prior visa, may also have played a part.
Even so, the impact on the local Pattaya economy should not be overstated. The number of retirement visas for European expats, including Brits, has not shown much of a decline. Several bars and restaurants, especially on the “dark side”, the Mabprachan Lake area and in the residential enclaves of South Pattaya, said they were still dependent on the British market. They said the main difference was that Brits were staying for shorter periods. Property experts said that British condominium purchasers and renters were still a significant market force.
A Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) source said, “We are still seeing many British tourists in popular resort cities and in Bangkok, but now there are more and more family visitors rather than sole travelers.” This debate is likely to be with us for many years to come.